Night At The Museum

FASHION Magazine

Remember when the design hotel was the sexiest thing ever? Well, now it’s about as tired as a Fendi baguette. Forget sleek and minimal lounges courtesy of Philippe Starck or Andrée Putman. Forget lacquered wall panels and leather-upholstered beds. Today’s It-factor is all about the unique, human, expressive and imperfect beauty of sculptures paintings and installations. “The chic-ness of contemporary art is something that hotels today are desperate to be affiliated with,” says Brett Littman, director of prestigious art center The Drawing Center in New York. Hence, trendy hotels today offer lodging, room service and a crash course in Damien Hirst. This is a long way from the framed Monet reproduction in the hallway. Whereas art in hotels used to be elevator music for the walls, so to speak, it has now become the main message.  In-the-know display regularly rotating multi-million dollar art pieces, feature gallery spaces and employ their own in-house curators. The décor is more about eclectic and homey luxury (à la eccentric art collector’s town house) than show stopping furniture and big designer names.

Toronto’s own hipster hot spot The Gladstone Hotel is one of the pioneers in this genre. When the fin de siècle Victorian hostelry re-opened after an extensive restoration in 2005, it was made-over as a cross between hotel, gallery space and 3D art installation. Each room is designed by a local artist, who channeled his or her own vision of domesticity with experimental colors, shapes and materials, and an entire floor is devoted to exhibition spaces. The hotel’s art program is focused on local talent and includes popular annual events (such as the trendsetting “Come Up To My Room” where avant-garde designers and artists transform a hotel room into an installation, collaborative projects with outside organizations and curated exhibitions in the hotel’s public spaces.  “In any given month we can have everything from four to twelve shows,” says Chris Mitchell, the hotel’s director of exhibitions, marketing and development. “We deliver a completely immersive experience with living, breathing art in all of our spaces. We have evolved into a cultural hub in the city.”

Mitchell says that the hotel’s art reaches a broader audience than the already-converted crowd that frequents galleries and museums. “Guests become enriched by an exposure they didn’t expect. When you have to walk through a hallway installation to get to your room, it might change the way you look art.”

The Chambers Hotel in Minneapolis (which bills itself “The country’s first luxury art hotel”) opened in 2007 and also offers a comfortable introduction to the contemporary art world. “It’s fun to break down that barrier of “I don’t get this” to people who are not familiar with contemporary art,” says art director Jennifer Phelps who curates the hotel’s 6-8 annual exhibitions and guides tours of the hotel’s oh-so-fashionable and edgy collection of British art stars such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor Wood and Gary Hume. (Hotel owner Ralph Burnet is one of the world’s leading collector’s of young British artists) “It makes people walk away with a feeling of “Wow- what else is out there?” She also thinks that the hotel’s pleasant environment makes guests experience the work differently than they would in a museum.

“People are relaxed here. You can enjoy an installation with your coffee and newspaper. It’s spontaneous.”

When larger-than-life New York artist and film director Julian Schnabel designed the interior for New York’s glamorous Gramercy Park Hotel in 2006, he aimed to “take the pretension out of art and make it democratic.” That meant displaying some of the world’s most valuable paintings by the likes of Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Richard Prince and –of course- Schnabel himself, in an environment that felt like a haute bohemian drawing room, making the experience of being in an insanely rich art collector’s home available to people who don’t fraternize with billionaires. The renowned photographer Roxanne Lowit, whose celebrity and fashion portraits are displayed on a wall in a lounge area by the plush public bathrooms, thinks that the hotel’s intimate setting makes the work more approachable: ” It feels very informal and inviting, unlike a big brightly lit gallery. The last time I was at the GPH, I ran into Nicolas Cage standing there admiring my work. I think he felt comfortable talking to me because we were in a cozy environment.”

While the hominess of Gramercy Park Hotel channels eccentric heiress, the brand new Story Hotel in Stockholm, Sweden, is more arty rock star. The hotel’s cool and eclectic rooms display a lived-in aesthetic with unfinished surfaces and collages of artwork by the city’s top talent. The hotel takes the concept of curated art one step further by offering prints of five specially commissioned photos and illustrations for sale. “Our idea was to offer “art to go”, says Nina Beckman who runs the art agency Wonderwall that has partnered with Story. “We make quality art attainable. The work is more precious and unique than mass production but much more affordable than fine art collections in galleries.”

So how does the art industry insiders feel about this trend? “It depends,” says Littman, “If the hotels make an effort to support the art community and buy work from local artists that they rotate, then I think it’s great.” However, hotels are often reluctant to pay for the art they display, thinking exposure and publicity is payment enough. “ That sits uneasy with me,” says Littman “Art has to be valued for something other than its hipness.”

But the artists themselves seem to feel that the hotel environment can benefit the work in a way that a museum or gallery doesn’t. “The work is on display for a much longer time than the average gallery show, which lasts about a month,” says Lowit. “It’s also available to a larger audience. They can look at the work at their leisure, and even come back and see it again next time they’re in town. It’s art for art’s sake