When Hotel Rooms Become art Installations

26/09/2011 12:51 BST | Updated 16/11/2011 10:12 GMT

Hoteliers are increasingly aware that their guests appreciate art and expect more than a familiar print bolted to the wall. Luxury brands are investing substantial sums in works by established or emerging talent and are curating their own collections, as Kathryn Tully discovers

Earlier this month, The Standard Hotel in New York held a party in the ultra-hip Boom Boom Room to celebrate the launch of its second series of video installations to be shown in all guest rooms. The videos include work from seven contemporary artists and in Rabbit Holy Days, by Terrence Koh, fluffy white bunnies are filmed relaxing in one of the hotel's minimalist bathroom sinks and admiring the view from the 18th floor.

While the long-held stereotype of hotel art has involved something bolted to a wall, simultaneously decorative yet bland and almost apologising for its own existence, things have moved on a lot. In recent years, the hotel industry has realised that many of their guests are also art aficionados and that cultural tourism can begin the minute they arrive the lobby.

In an increasing number of hotels, art is not an afterthought, but a central part of the guest offering. In fact, it is so integral to some new hotels that they are designed with the art work in mind. The Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom, for example, designed by architect Jean Nouvel, features multicoloured video ceilings by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist.

Today, many hotels compete with galleries and museums as an alternative exhibition space, producing glossy catalogues of their collections and employing creative directors and curators to help them select works for permanent display or temporary exhibitions.

When Brian Williams, managing director of Swire Hotels, wanted to create a contemporary art collection for The Montpellier Chapter in Cheltenham, he turned to Jane Lee, course director in fine art at Central St Martins College of Art and Design in London for help after he met her at a degree show. "We were very keen to promote both established and young British artists and Central Saint Martins has a long reputation for producing artists of some repute," he says.

Approaches vary quite dramatically. Sometimes, art is intended to gel with the hotel's overall design aesthetic; sometimes quite the opposite. In The Surrey, a renovated Manhattan hotel that reopened in 2009, the ambience of a luxurious, traditional Upper East Side townhouse is offset with playful contemporary art works, such as a graffiti-adorned armoire in the lobby and graffitied tables in the bar by UK furniture designers Jimmie Martin.

This was also the thinking at The Montpellier Chapter. "We were keen that the art was a standalone feature of the hotel and not driven solely by design aesthetic," explains Mr Williams. "We wanted our guests to be intrigued and interested by the art and that it didn't feel like a corporate acquisition."

Some hotels, like Zurich's The Dolder Grand, are proud of their extensive, museum-quality collections. Others, such as The Opposite House in Beijing, want to showcase the work of emerging artists. Earlier this year, it commissioned art students at China's Central Academy of Fine Arts to produce a series of postcards to be left as gifts during the hotel's turn-down service.

But not all properties want to be thought of as an art hotel. "We didn't want to be another art hotel, where you just put high-end, expensive art into the environment," says Eva Ziegler, global brand leader of Le Méridien and W Hotels Worldwide. "We want our lobbies to be a creative hub where people can gather and exchange ideas." Nevertheless, Ms Ziegler says that guests formulate lasting impressions of hotels within ten minutes of arriving, which is why Le Méridien has high-impact art in its lobbies.

Yet, whatever the approach, the benefits are much the same. Art is a way of defining a hotel's identity and giving it a unique draw, whether that draw is the presence of Old Masters by Giuseppe Zais and Giuseppe Bazzani in the lobby of Rome's Cavalieri Hilton or guest-room murals by contemporary artists in Copenhagen's Hotel Fox.

Of course, it certainly helps if a hotel owner already has an extensive art collection or a hotel can borrow from other private collections, because it is never easy to build a collection from scratch. Finding, selecting and buying the art or commissioning the right artists takes time. It took two years to put together the collection at The Montpellier Chapter, which started by buying works by established artists such as John Hopper and Mario Rossi and then adding to these core pieces with art by younger talent. Executing bespoke commissions takes even longer and installing art work presents another logistical challenge before a newly built or newly refurbished hotel can throw open its doors.

Critically, some artists are also ambivalent about their work appearing in hotels or any large commercial setting. Le Méridien bypassed this problem by recruiting Jérôme Sans to be the hotel's cultural curator, who has selected Le Méridien 100 (LM100), a group which includes artists and photographers such as Sam Samore, Joan Fontcuberta and Ralph Gibson, to create art works, video installations and soundscapes for the hotels. As Ms Ziegler puts it: "Jerome opens doors that we would never have been able to open as a brand, particularly for artists that don't normally engage with big companies."

However, Anne Pasternak, president and artistic director of public art, non-profit Creative Time, which curated The Standard's new video series, thinks that, as long as artists work with the right brand, the pervasive cliches surrounding hotel art are redundant. "Not one artist that we approached to work with The Standard turned us down," she says, adding that the hotel has a very hip reputation.

If anything, she says that the hotel project gave video artists more creative flexibility than they have when producing installations for other public spaces. "We do video projects in New York's Times Square where passersby have a very short attention span, whereas a hotel guest might engage with an in-room video installation for 20 minutes."

Of course, a still more compelling reason for hotels to exhibit art is that it democratises the process of enjoying it. Whether that art is an Andy Warhol painting or some cutting-edge bunny videography, it is no longer confined to a museum, behind a velvet rope. "I think that hotels exhibit art to attract a very specific crowd," says Ms Pasternak. "But a by-product of that is they end up sharing art with a lot more people."

JW Marriott has teamed up with Christie's auction house to feature special art exhibitions. The first of these was a preview of unseen Beatles photos at London's Grosvenor House. Another is due to be held in December at Miami's JW Marriott Marquis.

To view and download the full report click here