Culture club

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am

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When philosopher Alain de Botton wrote the book The Art of Travel, he was musing about 'that ubiquitous but peculiar activity of travelling for pleasure', rather than anything artistic per se. But the title nicely articulates a global trend encapsulating travel for both pleasure and cultural appreciation- that of art hotels, wherein public areas have been transformed into gallery space.

Imaginative hotel interiors have long captured the attention of globe-hoppers. Guests can wake up to the steely gaze of an oversized manga cartoon at Hotel Fox in Copenhagen, Denmark; nod off while staring at a fairy tale intricately recreated on the ceilings of Atelier Sul Mare in Sicily; and make love in a Parisian boudoir at Hotel du Petit Moulin, a bolt hole ostentatiously decorated by designer Christian Lacroix. But the current trend goes beyond the safe creative haven of themed suites and well-conceived interiors into the more highbrow arena of art appreciation. Hotel owners, often collectors themselves, are committing paintings, sculptures and installations to spaces commonly set aside for a generic lamp, two-seater couch, newspaper rack and coffee table.

Of course, the art hotel is not a new concept. La Colombe d'Or, in Saint-Paul de Vence, near Nice, France, started life in the 1920s as a restaurant and small inn. Its owner's artistic sensibilities attracted local artists who, it is related, handed over pieces of work in exchange for board. During the war years, the south of France's 'free zone' status attracted prominent thinkers and creative types and La Colombe's walls soon became a who's who of artistic guests, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso included.

In Italy's 48-year-old Rome Cavalieri, old master paintings hang amid centuries-old furniture, rare tapestries and other artefacts 'mostly purchased at Christie's and Sotheby's'. Numbering 5,000 pieces, the Cavalieri's is the largest private collection within a hotel. Guests check-in while gazing at paintings by 18th-century Italian landscape painter Giuseppe Zais and enjoy lunch surrounded by works by 18th-century Rococo painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

The new guard of art hotels might not have a Matisse in the bar or a Tiepolo in the dining room but they are nourished and sustained by a growing public passion for art. This is the case nowhere more so than in China, where a number of hotels are riding an exponential wave of interest in contemporary art.

The Opposite House opened in 2008 and gave young contemporary artists an unlikely platform- the hotel's ground floor as a gallery. Its fashion- and textile-inspired works reflect the hotel's location, in Beijing's Sanlitun shopping area. They also demonstrate a willingness to court cutting-edge themes through art and, importantly, a confidence in their guests to appreciate it.

Hubei artist Li Xiaofeng's porcelain Beijing Memory No2 has been dubbed 'wearable art' because it resembles a traditional cheongsam, but the life-size ensemble is actually made from shattered antique blue and white Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain that was found on a construction site. Controversial Shanxi artist Wang Jin's Dream of China is, on first appearance, a beautiful robe. Look closer and you'll discover it is made out of plastic and embroidered with coloured fishing wire. Both artists are making a comment on contemporary society. Both pieces are on permanent display at the Opposite House.

Taking advantage of the art around it as well as that placed within is boutique hotel Grace Beijing, located in the capital's 798 Art District. Polish photo-artist Ryszard Horowitz will be in residence at the hotel, formerly known as the Yi House, while exhibiting a retrospective show at the Rose Gallery, in 798, for two weeks from October 12.

Langham Place, in Mong Kok, calls itself Hong Kong's first art hotel, with wall space throughout the premises given over to a privately owned, 1,500-piece collection of contemporary Chinese art. Jiang Shuo's Red Guards- Going Forward! Making Money! greets guests on the ground floor. On the fifth floor, one of Yue Minjun's distinctive self-portraits, As Graceful as a Crane, smiles inanely at those using the business centre. That Langham Place has been described as 'a gallery masquerading as a hotel' is a point of pride for vice-president of brands Paul Walters, who says its art has become the hotel's major point of difference.

'It's important for guests to have a unique experience and a sense of place, preferably with something that's indigenous to the location. It's a cultural experience where they don't even have to leave the hotel or the comfort of the air conditioning,' he says.

Langham recruited Hong Kong art consultant Angela Li to put together the collection in 2004. In an iPod tour of the most prominent pieces, Li admits to steering away from art that might have blended into the environment and go unnoticed, opting instead for 'unconventional, thought-provoking pieces that are much more than decoration, to enhance the environment as well as inspire the mind... We hope to generate interest and make art more accessible'.

Boutique hotels are leading the way in making their collections accessible but, as the Langham demonstrates, there's a place for art in larger properties, too. The Langham Place Hotel is a multistorey contemporary building with 665 guest rooms and suites. 'But the way [these] hotels are built almost ensures they naturally support an art gallery,' Walters says. 'They're usually spacious, the light is good, temperature can be controlled and they are ready-made for banqueting and social events. It's surprising how underutilised this space can be and how not more hotels have taken advantage of these unique spaces.'

That is changing; with the growing emphasis on art in the hospitality industry, art consultants, barely heard of a decade ago in hotel circles, are being hired at an earlier stage in the development pro- cess. Design company HBA this year launched a division of its art consultancy, Canvas, in Hong Kong, with the aim of 'enhancing exceptional hospitality interior designs with well-conceived and fully realised art collections'.

'In order to stand out among the competition, hotels have to be more unique and give guests and visitors an unforgettable experience,' says Canvas creative art consultant Olive Wong. 'At the same time, travelling is no longer a luxury. Accomplished, sophisticated travellers would like something more than the typical luxury hotels. Museums, art fairs, auction houses are easily accessible. Art has become more 'friendly' to people.'

Hotel owners are also getting more soph- isticated and want to share their passion. Paul Irvine, director of luxury travel company Dehouche, which special- ises in tailor-made tours of Latin America, says 'boutique hotels are really pushing the boundaries when it comes to helping guests interact with art, rather than using art for art's sake'.

One example is Algodon Mansion in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The hotel's curator has devised a series of art dinners, including one which had guests feasting with Argentinian contemporary artist Eugenio Cuttica, who was able to explain the concepts behind his exhibited work in an intimate environment.

'Boutique hotels like Algodon Mansion offer a window into the local culture, in an environment where interaction isn't forced or expected- such as in a museum or traditional art gallery- and where the pieces can be appreciated in the midst of everyday life,' Irvine says. 'Guests can live and breathe the pieces of art as if [the hotel] were their own private gallery and the experience of the art becomes much more organic, fluid and emotional. Viewing art in a gallery is, in comparison, very detached.

'[Art] gives the hotel a strong connection to the local culture and infuses the property with an energy and soul.'

Energy and soul obviously come at a price, but few hotels are willing to divulge the value of their private collections. Langham Place Hotel puts a ballpark HK$20 million value on its works but, according to PR director Ainslie Cheung, it's difficult to speculate.

'Many of the artists and their pieces in the contemporary Chinese collection have shot up in both collector interest and value. We prefer to say, 'You would be hard pushed to create another collection of Chinese art that is as well-curated for what we originally invested.''

Keeping this in mind, is there a return on art requisitions in business terms?

According to Wong, it has become an increasingly legitimate outlay: 'As hotels become more aware of the importance of art and design, they are willing to spend more and more for the best interior designers, the best art consultants and the best value on art.

'A successful art collection creates a buzz in the community. The better the art collection the more people talk and respond. Word spreads and the subsequent number of visitors to the hotel increases. Then good reviews and publicity follow...' That's the theory, anyhow.

Pulling the ultimate PR stunt, London's Claridge's Hotel, an A-lister hub in upmarket Mayfair, in July announced illustrator David Downton as its first 'fashion artist in residence'. Morphing art and celebrity, Downton has established his atelier at Claridge's and will capture some of the hotel's most illustrious guests. Former subjects of his have included Linda Evangelista and Cate Blanchett. This collection of drawings will be on permanent public display for the hotel's lower-profile visitors to admire.

Interactive and extra-curricular art-focused activities are also being used to engage guests. The pastry chef at the five-star Merrion Hotel in Dublin, Ireland, has encouraged guests to appreciate the collection of 19th- and 20th-century Irish art by creating an 'art tea', a witty interpretation of pieces including Woman in White, by Louis le Brocquy - expressed as a pavlova with blueberry cream and sauce anglaise - and Defiance 1950 by Jack B. Yeats, evoked in a mixed-berry bavarois with cinnamon brioche.

Others have built tour packages around the art experience. The Shilla, in Seoul, South Korea, this year introduced a 'Gallery at the Shilla' package, including accommodation, tickets to the Leeum Museum of Art and a full-colour guide to the hotel's collection, which includes works by Picasso and Salvador Dali, and contemporary Korean talent such as Bahk Seon-ghi.

More ambitiously, the fabulous boutique Riad El Fenn in Marrakesh, Morocco, has become the founding home of the Marrakesh Biennale, which began at the hotel in 2005 'to build a cultural bridge through the arts and between disciplines by enabling discussions with and between artists'. Past participants have included Antony Gormley and Julian Schnabel.

This connection with local art and culture is also a theme at Ellerman House in Cape Town, South Africa. The hotel's collection of 350-plus works has been plucked from the best of South African talent in the hope of 'providing an important social commentary on [South] Africa as a country'. One work, depicting the time Nelson Mandela spent in prison on Robben Island, hangs on a wall that faces the island.

'On a clear day,' says manager Nick Dreyer, 'you can actually see the reflection of Robben Island [in the picture]. We were so pleased when the artist, Willem Boshoff, could not stop taking pictures of himself in the reflection with Robben Island. It was a fantastic interplay between artist, art and the locale.'

Sujata Raman, managing director of luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent, Australia & New Zealand, agrees that the com- bination of art and culture is a natural fit for tourists.

'Travellers seeking the cultural experiences of a destination are often curious about the art of that region,' she says. 'Checking into a beautiful hotel, which also hosts exhibitions of local artworks, means there's time to enjoy the display at leisure and at the guests' whim. There're no opening hours to contend with, no queues and no entry fees.'

Raman cites Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap, Cambodia, as an excellent example, where 'the exhibition space allows guests time to enjoy the works in a comfortable and relaxed environment over a drink or two, and with the opportunity to frequently return for added contemplation'.

The hotel has also mastered the art of philanthropy. Its Arts Lounge and new auxiliary Thev Gallery are curated by Sasha Constable, the great-great-great-granddaughter of British landscape master John Constable. In 2003, she founded the Peace Art Project Cambodia, which turned decommissioned weaponry into emotive anti-war sculptures. Constable uses the Khmer art scene as an access point for the community and for charities including the Halo Trust, which carries out mine-clearing work.

'It's not about simply creating an aesthetically pleasing, indulgent environment for guests who like to surround themselves with the finer things in life,' says Constable. 'It's about highlighting causes within the community, providing a moving and sometimes challenging insight into Cambodia's difficult past... as well as a life-affirming, inspiring look at the richness and warmth of Khmer culture and community.'

Perhaps it is sentiments such as this that the 'art of travel' should embody for all of us.