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Art First, Hotel Second

By David Ashen, partner & founder, dash design

This article was published originally on Hotel Executive July 30, 2017

On a recent business trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, I led a market tour with my client. We explored hotel properties within the vicinity of Phoenix and Scottsdale, including the recently rebuilt Mountain Shadows in Paradise Valley, which is surrounded by picturesque desert backdrops and sits just outside Scottsdale. The beautifully constructed resort, opened this spring and sits below Camelback Mountain on the site of an old torn down resort from 1959. Now, it has reemerged as, in the hotel’s words, “an icon of luxury and design”. Indeed. This four-star, unique destination hotel has quickly become a place to see and be seen. However impressive the transformation was, its grand rebirth is not what stood out most in my mind about the resort. Rather, it was the hotel’s pre-function space, specifically, or what our tour guide referred to as “our gallery” as we walked through the hotel’s public spaces, that held my attention.

The shift in calling a public area an art gallery first and a function space (pre-function) second was interesting to note. That’s because, particularly during the last 10 years, art has become a necessary part of the story for all upper-end, boutique hotels. This is especially true in the United States, where there is scant opportunity for the display of notable, public art. Thankfully, hotels have been filling that niche, bringing excellent art to the general public and making it accessible. Now, quality art is not a nicety; it’s an expectation.

The genesis of the trend harks back to The Sagamore Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, one of the early innovators in making art an integral part of design and the hotel an essential part of the canvas. The hotel was the first to go beyond installing a piece of sculpture or hanging an object of art or two in the lobby, setting the stage for what would become a prerequisite for hotels that art be woven into the plan, if not a central part of it. If fact, at The Sagamore, interior spaces revolve around the significant, contemporary private art collection of the site’s owners, Marty and Cricket Taplin.

The concept of art as a fundamental aspect of hotel design was taken a step further at the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, a boutique hotel in the city’s downtown historic neighborhood that not only offers a full suite of comfort, dining and business amenities, but also boasts more than 9,000 square feet of exhibition space. It was there that the innovative strategy of designing art galleries with overnight rooms caught on. What were thought of as a beautiful art galleries with rotating collections and local culture in secondary markets, were designed as places where people could stay overnight.

That flip in priorities—art first, hotel second—led to what we see today, with art-centric locations in Bentonville, Arkansas; Durham, North Carolina; Lexington, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and in a property I recently visited, in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was there that I participated in an all-day meeting with a client who rented the hotel’s conference space, which, again, was a gallery first and great meeting space second. All seven of the 21c properties share in this model and it’s quite successful, with another hotel planned for the brand to open soon in Kansas City, Missouri. Each boasts major art collections worthy of any museum, but is, instead, placed in spaces in which people can enjoy, spend time and live.

The trend doesn’t stop with The Sagamore or 21c, though. Eight years ago, Sage Hospitality Group launched the Nines, a brand of the Marriott family of properties, in downtown Portland, Oregon, as part of its boundary-pushing luxury collection. The brand shifted from the industry’s usual paradigm and went all-in with the concept of art as a central part of the hotel’s brand story, bringing to life the idea of highly curated art from hyper-local, Portland-area artists, a first for a large hotel group. To make the concept a reality, Sage Hospitality Group brought in art curator extraordinaire Paige Powell, who has worked with Andy Warhol and been called his muse. Powell curated a collection for the Nines, digging into the project with an intentional process of finding the perfect artists to commission just-right works to suit the hotel’s tones and brand-story, along with its dedicated spaces. Among the notable local artists whose work Powell brought in and commissioned were Gus Van Sant, Mickalen Thomas, Philip Iosca and Strom Tharp, bringing the Nines great acclaim.

At the Nines, I worked with Powell when I designed the Library and the restaurant, Urban Farmer, for Sage. Powell’s impact on the property was evident and I engaged her in a number of projects thereafter, including the multi-million-dollar renovation for the historic Lexington New York City hotel in Midtown Manhattan four years ago. The reimagined property, which transports guests into a Jazz-Age glamour with modern appeal, features an art collection carefully selected by Powell. More than 30 high-caliber artists were commissioned, including a combination of established and emerging talent, to develop memorable, site-specific pieces consisting of a three-dimensional, stand-out series of sculptural screens in the lobby by artist Alba Clemente, works by photographer Rose Hartman, and an impressive mural by famed illustrator Ruben Toledo on two floors of the hotel, from the elevator lobby through the staircase and walls.

Lexington New York Art Lobby. Photo: Frank Oudeman

Lexington New York Art Lobby. Photo: Frank Oudeman

 These unique pieces have become buzz-worthy parts of the narrative of Lexington New York City, a social hot-spot, traveler’s refuge and business meeting place on Midtown Manhattan’s East Side, where guests and visitors post Instagram pictures in front of its mural, even today. Moreover, people seek out the art pieces within the space, such as Clemente’s laser cut steel panel that sit at the end of reception and, serves as a theatrical focal point within the lobby. Beyond that, the interactions tell a story, which has translated into brand awareness, social media shares and a higher-than-usual level of press mentions and media spotlights beyond a typical marketing campaign.

In addition to differentiating one hotel from the next and adding local flair, incorporating art collections into a hotel’s design builds value and has given guests a sea of alluring hotel options from which to choose. Should a hotel later be renovated or liquidated, having an art collection adds to the property’s assets, making it that much more desirable.

That’s not to say hotel brands are the only ones that benefit from their fine art displays. The artists that create the pieces also reap rewards, such as a heightened exposure of their work and name. Thomas commands tens of thousands of dollars for selected pieces and earned a place for her art in The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan. Tharp’s art was included in the Whitney Biennial, a highly regarded contemporary art exhibition that was held in New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art and is regarded as a one of the world’s leading shows and the place where artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Jeff Koons were more formally introduced to the scene.

So, what’s the next move for hotel brands looking to add art? It could be said that art has become the point of entry and that this movement benefits the public and arts communities, in part, by allowing people to engage with creative works in a new way. Additionally, hotels’ support of fine art has given new and established artists a new stream of income. For instance, our firm is working on the Autograph Collection’s new MC hotel in Montclair, New Jersey, where a diverse community with lots of creative people are part of the community’s mix. By incorporating art and local culture in the hotel’s schematic plan, an excitement has been built within the area’s artist community. Already, we have done local studio tours with Powell, which has helped build bridges within the area’s vibrant arts scene.

Likewise, other hotel brands are drawing inspiration from the local art and cultural scene. In Detroit, The Baronette Renaissance Novi Hotel, a conveniently located hotel that offers the comforts of modest luxury, along with event spaces, planning and catering, has wisely taken advantage of its near proximity to the Cranbrook Academy of Art by having Powell commission fine art pieces by recent graduates and professors of the school to adorn the hotel’s lobby. The strategy is one we recommend to brands we work with, as it offers another way to build-out an art collection with a uniquely local spin.

Baronette Main Lobby. Photo: Frank Oudeman

Baronette Main Lobby. Photo: Frank Oudeman

Whether hoteliers seek a personal curator like Powell to help them build a curated collection, head to an art house, display their personal art collections, or connect with local galleries or art schools, it’s clear they have begun to recognize the essential role of art in design, its ability to create a sense of place and the competitive advantage it brings to their brand. Gone are the days of using forgettable prints and blasé reproductions. Thanks to innovators like The Sagamore, 21c and the Nines, art has gone beyond earning its place on walls in public and private spaces and is at the table, too.