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The Newest Amenity in High-End Hotels: Real Art

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Along with the high room rate, there are certain characteristics to be found in luxury (increasingly called "boutique") hotels these days: The mattresses are Tempur-Pedic; the thread counts of the sheets are 180 or higher; the shower has a deluxe nozzle, and the bathroom has a telephone; the televisions are 54-inch LCD flat panels; rooms are wired for high-speed Internet access; the contemporary artwork on the walls is original. Whoa, original art, and by contemporary artists?
The new beds and sheets and TVs are in the way of the usual upgrade, a form of pampering, but the original art is the result of a rethinking of what the luxury experience entails: Wealthy people are accustomed to being around art. Chambers, the "Luxury Art Hotel" in Minneapolis (charging between $285 and $2,400 per night for a room), displays over 200 works of art (drawings, painting, photographs, prints and sculpture) by well-known (Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Subodh Gupta) and emerging artists in the lobby, corridors, bathrooms, restaurant and guest rooms; monitors in a number of those same areas screen video art on a round-the-clock basis. Sagamore, "The Art Hotel" in Miami Beach ($199-600 per night), specializes in video art from the collection of co-hotel owner Christine Taplin, with screens streaming work by artists in the lobby, restaurant and hallways; still images (photographs, oil and watercolor paintings, as well as sculpture) from the collection are found in the guest rooms and public areas. Like the Chambers, the Sonesta Hotel & Suites in Coconut Grove, Florida, whose per night room rates range from $189 to $599, similarly displays a mix of artwork by internationally-known (Jan Dibbets, Sam Francis, Sol Lewitt, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella), regionally renowned and emerging artists in its public spaces and guest rooms. At all three of these hotels, guests may take self-guided tours around the facilities to see some or all of the art on display, and brochures are available from the concierges that describe where and what the artwork is.
Sonesta owns over 25 hotels in the United States, Egypt, Mexico, South America and the Caribbean, all of which contain works from the company's vast collection. "Artwork is part of how we differentiate ourselves from other hotels," said Stephanie Sonnabend, Sonesta's president and chief executive officer. While acknowledging that no survey has shown that guests come (or come back) to a Sonesta because of the artwork on display in public areas and in guest rooms, she noted that "people make comments that indicate the art has made a difference in their experience."
Hotels always have had some form of décor, of which artwork is a small or large part, but luxury hotels have put a premium on higher value contemporary art by artists with a strong or growing standing. The most expensive art tends to be placed in the more public areas, where security is tightest, but even guest rooms now feature original artworks that cost more than the frames (in the past, it had been the other way around). Guests appreciate the artwork in their rooms and are respectful of it, and don't steal it, either, Sonnabend said, claiming that flat-screen TVs are more apt to be taken than signed lithographs.
"Being around original art is part of the lifestyle of the people who can afford these room rates," said Alex Attia, general manager of Boston's Charles Hotel, which features original art throughout and whose room rates range from $199 to $750 per night. "These are sophisticated people with discriminating tastes." Many of the guests are either buyers of art already or are in the same income category as art collectors ("They can appreciate art," said a spokesperson for the Small Luxury Hotels of the World association), and it is not unusual for them to ask about buying the artwork that hung in their room. "The art is for sale," Attia said. "You can't just take the work right off the wall but, if it is part of a series, we will order another one and ship it" to the home of the hotel guest."
The owner of the Charles Hotel, Richard Friedman, is himself an art collector and has featured artwork in the hotel for over 20 years. However, Attia noted, after a major renovation in 2005, art became part of the hotel's business plan, making the experience unique for guests and establishing "not just a décor but a concept. When people talk about the hotel, they talk about the art, and the art increases the conversation about the hotel."
A hotel is for people on the go, but it is also where they stop. Hotels usually offer brochures that describe nearby historical and cultural amenities, such as where area art galleries and museums are located, but many guests don't have the time to visit them, because of work or other planned activities. "We get a number of people on business who never actually leave the hotel, except when it's time to catch their plane home," said Walter Isenberg, president and chief executive officer of Sage Hospitality, which operates a number of hotels in the western half of the country. Sage Hospitality's two hotels in Denver, the Courtyard Downtown ($259 per night) and Oxford Hotel ($160-450 per night), both feature original artworks by local artists, and "guests tell us that they feel they really got a taste of Denver. Even if they never saw much, or anything, of the city, it doesn't seem when they leave that they just stayed in a vanilla hotel in a vanilla city."
Other hotels go a step further and have set up commercial art galleries as a separate area in the lobbies. "Guests come in out of curiosity," said Jennifer Phelps, director of the Chambers Hotel art gallery, and often they buy something. The gallery stages half a dozen exhibitions annually, with prices of artworks ranging from $800 to $3,000 (occasionally up to $10,000 or $20,000), "and usually half or more of the show is sold out by the time it's through." Like Walter Isenberg, Phelps said that guests want to take something from their experience in a different city home with them, and "we may be their cultural experience." The Grand Bohemian Hotel in Orlando, Florida ($179-449 per night), which displays artwork from the collection of its owner, Richard Kessler, on all 15 floors, also exhibits and sells local contemporary artists in the hotel's art gallery. The artwork comes in all types, but it is "themed to showcase a lifestyle," said Katelyn Chandler, director of the hotel art gallery. The gallery, she said, "is run like a business and is part of an overall business plan here."
Among some other hotels that make artwork a significant element of the experience are the 91-room 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky ($199-450 per night), the MGM Mirage hotel in Las Vegas ($179-3,000 per night) and Chicago's James Hotel ($299-2,500 per night). The 21c houses a 9,000 square-foot exhibition space with changing displays based on the hotel owners' collection of regional artists' work (a museum shop within the museum sells artwork by the same and other artists). "It makes staying at the hotel a mentally stimulating experience," a spokeswoman said. Even more in line with a museum is the MGM Mirage, which has its own art collection - a Robert Rauschenberg painting hangs behind the front desk - and boasts the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art (general admission is $15), which exhibits artwork from the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. For its part, the James Hotel works with area art galleries and the Museum of Contemporary Art to curate exhibitions in the hotel's lobby (the artwork is not for sale at the hotel, but biographies of the artists and contact information for the galleries is available).
Buying the artwork that guests have seen on the walls of their room should not come as a surprise, since guests frequently purchase so much else of what they just experienced in the hotel for their own homes. In fact, a growing number of hotels have set up a sideline selling the beds, sheets, shower nozzles, drapes, towels, comforters and televisions to these very people right on site or online (www.hoteldownbedding.com, www.sonesta-hotelsathome.com, www.Hilton-hotelsathome.com, www.fourseasons.com, www.shopmarriott.com, www.soboutique.com, www.ritzcarlton.com/corporate/gift_shop, www.westin-hotelsathome.com).
Perhaps no hotel makes as much of artists as the Hotel des Arts in San Francisco ($79-279), where the walls of every one of the 58 rooms have been painted by a local artist. (The artists themselves are not paid for their work but are given the materials they need, "and it is an artwork of mine that is constantly being exhibited," said Christ Ybarra, a painter in Richmond, California who did Room No. 205. "I'm told it's a very popular room, and I tell everyone to check it out on the Hotel des Arts Web site.") A close second may be New York City's Gershwin Hotel, which has maintained an artist-in-residence program since 2005. Literary, performing and visual artists, who apply from all over the world, are invited to stay free at the hotel for between 10 days and one month during which time they will create a new work that is read, performed or exhibited for guests at the hotel. In the course of a year, six or seven artists will be in-residence.
"The work created by fine artists is donated to the hotel," Joel Oury, general manager at the Gershwin Hotel ($109-319 per night), said, adding that the principal benefit to the artists is "visibility." Payment to emerging and regional artists for commissioned and original art is higher at other hotels than at the Hotel des Arts and the Gershwin, but not that much higher, and exposure to a higher income public is still the carrot for most. "Our art consultant basically said to artists, 'This is our budget, can you work with us?'" said Desmond Mollendor, general manager at the Hotel Modera in Portland, Oregon ($139-309 per night), which purchased original art for guest rooms and public areas as part of its renovation that was completed in May 2008. One of the artists the consultant hired, Portland painter William Park, was commissioned to create two large (4' x 6' and 6' x 6') paintings, two somewhat smaller paintings (2' x 6'), one large (3' x 6') drawing and four smaller (2' x 2') drawings that were placed in public and private areas of the hotel. He was paid "around $10,000," but "people - people I don't know - ask about the works and how to get to the hotel so they can see them." Perhaps, more commissions or some outright sales will take place. Another Portland artist, Jessica Bonin, who was hired to create 10 paintings and a series of monotypes for a new (fall 2008) Sage Hospitality Hotel in the city called The Nines, was paid $9,600 for her work. "The design consultant for the hotel hired an art advisor, who happens to be a collector of my work," she said. That art advisor happens to be "a local animal activist, and I did a portrait of her dog." In order to encourage sales for the artists whose work is on display, the hotel and the art advisor created a booklet available at the front desk that discusses the art and offers contact information for the artists.
Yet another, the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, has a year-long artist-in-residence program, with the selected artists picked by a special committee and public voting. The program, which began in 2009, provides the artist with use of an art studio and gallery, as well as a monthly stipend. The artist works in the public view, allowing hotel guests and visitors to view the artistic process.
The theme of contemporary and expensive art all around you has given a number of hotels a distinct identity that is helpful in their marketing and promotion, but no hotel owner or any of the hotel associations have been able to claim that the artwork specifically led either to greater occupancy or to repeat business. "The art has enhanced the business - it's become part of the hotel's identity - and we've gotten so many comments from people," said Ann Goodnight, co-owner (with her husband) of the Umstead Hotel in Cary, North Carolina ($199-829 per night), which features a collection of paintings, sculpture and crafts objects by artists in the Southeast placed throughout the facility. Still, she noted, a large percentage of the hotel guests are business travelers who appear to be more interested in the hotel's location, conference rooms and amenities than in the décor. If the art in the hotel has achieved anything, she said, "it's probably to help the careers of the artists, who bring their collectors to the hotel to see their work. It can be very impressive."
Getting into a Hotel (like Getting into a Gallery)
It is not only luxury hotels that buy and display artwork, although they spend more for it and display more of it. Other hotels regularly purchase artwork as decoration when they are built, bought, renovated and "rebranded" for public spaces (the lobby, atrium, restaurant, VIP check-in) and the individual guest rooms. The art for the public spaces - fewer, larger and more expensive one-of-a-kind, durable objects - tends to be of a very different sort than what is placed in guest rooms (largely two-dimensional reproductions for which the frames tend to cost more than the artwork inside them).
The name on the hotel may be Hilton or Hyatt or Marriott, but the Hilton or Hyatt or Marriott corporations generally have little or nothing to do with the décor, which is usually determined by an architect or, more likely, the interior design team that was chosen for the construction or makeover (sometimes, the designers hire art advisors for this part of the job). The design team's acquisitions of artwork are determined by the scope of the project and its budget, as well as the durability of the art, and they locate artwork of local artists' work primarily through area galleries. "We go online to find galleries where the project is taking place, and then we ask a gallery owner to prepare a presentation for the designers," said Daniel Park, the resource librarian at the Manhattan-based design firm Jeffrey Beers International, which has designed hotel spaces in the Bahamas, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, London (England), Miami Beach, New York City and Tokyo. "The more stuff we see in an organized manner the better," noting that dealers do a better job of presenting a variety of art images and styles than might an individual artist.
Art galleries offer designers a one-stop shopping experience, in which a variety of art images, styles and artists are available, while individual artists will only show their own work. "When you are buying a collection, you don't want to just purchase the work of one artist but, instead, buy a number of artists' work," said Rita Guest, an interior designer in Atlanta and president of the American Society of Interior Designers. "It takes more time to work with individual artists," and it also makes the job of selecting individual pieces more cumbersome. Guest noted that she has worked for a number of law firms that want art by local artists. "I'll bring a team from the law firm to an art gallery to review pieces I've preselected for particular spaces in their offices, and they'll vote up or down." The process is relatively quick - she is paid by the hour - and less onerous that taking the same team from one artist's studio to another.
Many gallery owners want to be used on a regular basis by interior designers, and some of them have joined the American Society of Interior Designers as industry-partner members in order to have an inside track. (Through the Society, one may find out which art galleries have joined.) Artists may also look for other gallery owners who moonlight as art consultants - Art in America's annual Sourcebook to the Art World makes notations next to the galleries around the country where the dealers also provide consulting services - and for full-time art advisors. There are numerous differences between art dealers and art advisors. Dealers present a particular concept of art in their galleries, referred to as their "programs," which advisors seek to obtain artwork that matches the taste of their clients. Dealers represent artists, while advisors do not own or have on consignment the pieces they show to clients. Gallery owners are not eligible to belong to the International Association of Professional Art Advisors, whose members are "independent" of galleries, museums and corporate art collections. However, as a practical matter, independent art advisors work with gallery owners and one gallery owner will work with another, because they are all looking for suitable artists for their clients. There is no rule that artists need be independent of galleries and, in fact, it is through gallery exhibitions that artists come to the attention of other dealers and advisors in the art world.