FX Excursions

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Madrid Museums: Art Appreciation

Jun 1, 2009
2009 / June 2009

Metallic TreeArtist Jeff de Boer first met Calgary mayor Dave Bronconnier at the unveiling of his sculpture — the kaleidoscopic metallic tree called Light, the Universe and Everything — outside of Calgary’s Hotel Arts. The work brought new recognition to De Boer, whose sculptures had previously appeared at Alberta’s Children’s Hospital and Calgary International Airport.

“I told [the mayor] that hotels are like cities,” De Boer recalled. “They all have the same basic services, so why stay at one over another? Art is what makes it different. If you’re busy and don’t have time to take in the local art scene, it’s there waiting for you when you go back to your room. It’s not just decoration — it’s something more, something that makes a difference.”

To attract new customers, hotels almost always emphasize what’s new: better beds, new technology, innovative cuisines and conference centers. With art, hotels have the opportunity to invest in something that’s both contemporary and lasting, something that adds a unique touch to each location. That’s the reason Sonesta Collection owner Roger Sonnabend brought together more than 7,000 paintings, sculptures, prints and tapestries at his 21 hotels and resorts over the last 40 years.

“Roger was quoted as saying that the value of mahogany doesn’t go up, but the value of art does,” said Sonesta Collection spokeswoman Lorie Juliano. “Art adds to your experience, helps you to appreciate local culture and have a better understanding of where you really are. And it makes the hotel feel more like your home than it might otherwise feel. People request rooms or suites based on the art.”

Hotel art collections range from the classic to the contemporary. Madrid’s Villa Real, for example, hosts an assembly of Greek Apulia vases and Roman mosaics that would be the envy of any museum curator — as well as a broad spectrum of Catalan and Spanish etchings, lithographs and paintings. By contrast, Seattle’s Hotel Alexis chooses just three up-and-coming Pacific Northwest artists each quarter to appear in its Art Walk gallery.

“As director of the Seattle Art Museum gallery, I have access to more than 200 artists, so I have a lot of opportunity to look for new and emerging talents,” said curator Barbara Shaiman. “A hotel brings people out to see the art who aren’t familiar with the local scene, and gives them a taste of what’s available.”

Conceptual, challenging contemporary art has a built-in appeal to those who seek out smaller, hip hotels like the Alexis and Calgary’s Hotel Arts. “We’re Calgary’s premiere boutique hotel, and we attract a lot of creative types: design agencies, advertising firms, a lot of the fashion and entertainment industry, in addition to touring acts,” said spokesman Fraser Abbott. “We know who we are, and the art picked out by [owner] John Torode works well with that demographic. The art creates an atmosphere. We feed off it, and our clients do, too.”

Yet thought-provoking, stimulating art can make an impression — and establish a connection — even with guests who might not seek it out at home. “I think our art appeals to a very broad audience,” said Austin Watkins, a spokesperson for the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco. “We have 16 pieces by Lita Albuquerque on our ground floor — brightly-colored blues, reds and golds that look like beetles or turtles. You see a lot of people stopping to check it out, and not just a certain type. There are also people like me, who enjoy art and appreciate what it is, but might not have a depth of knowledge on the subject.”

Part of the appeal is the way each hotel presents its colle ction. At The Four Seasons San Francisco, visitors receive pre-programmed iPods with descriptions and other information about each work recorded by the artists themselves. “By far, the coolest thing we’ve ever done,” Watkins said.

Barcelona’s Hotel Bagues will take advantage of its location within the Regulador Bagues jewelry shop by including an original piece of Masriera jewelry within each of its rooms — and a museum dedicated to the work of Modernist artist Lluís Masriera in the lobby — when it opens in 2010. The Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., practically a museum in its own right, provides self-guided tours of its collection and invites students from nearby universities and art schools to visit and study its treasures.

“We have many of the masters of this type of contemporary art, but we really take a great deal of pride in each of the local works of contemporary art we display as well,” said Lorie Juliano, who fell in love with the Sonesta collection while attending school in Boston. “As you’re walking through the collection, names jump out at you — such as Andy Warhol — but others you might never have heard of, such as Maggie Brown, a figurative artist who lives in Cambridge.”

Incorporating the works of local artists, whether modern or prehistoric, invests a hotel with a sense of place in a way that nothing else can. San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Arts District, home of the Museum of Modern Art, the Craft and Folk Art Museum and the Cartoon Art Museum, is surrounded by top-tier hotels, including the InterContinental, the St. Regis and the W. By making itself part of the local art scene, Watkins believes the Four Seasons San Francisco has set itself apart from its competitors.

“In June of 2008, when the Contemporary Jewish Museum opened adjacent to us, we made the final audio interview on our podcast tour a discussion of the museum, so that when guests are finishing the tour they can look down over Yerba Buena gardens and see the museum right there,” Watkins said. “This area is so fantastic — there are so many cultural things to see and do — and so we find ways to tie it together to what we’re doing.”

The hand-woven cloth, wooden artifacts and oil paintings at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai — its collection of native Hawaiian art that dates to 1775 — allows visitors to the islands to immerse themselves in the Hawaii that was. Boston’s Fairmont Battery Wharf, on the other hand, takes the opposite tack, despite the city’s rich history: From the elegant glass sculptures of Nikolas Weinstein to the strength of the steel, stone and bronze sculptures of Obie Simonis, the hotel’s art plunges visitors into the busy heart of the modern Hub. Calgary’s Hotel Arts straddles both past and future: While its giant statue of a cow, Rita, recalls Calgary’s past as Canada’s cattle town, the brilliance and sophistication of its lobby sculpture imagines what tomorrow might bring.

“One of the first things you notice as you walk through the front doors is this wonderful suspended-light installation of blown glass by Barry W. Fairbairn, a local glass blower,” Abbott said. “It’s interesting to see the look on people’s faces when they see it, particularly locals who remember when this used to be a Holiday Inn. They’re flabbergasted.”

In fact, the hotel has attracted more business because of its art. “A lot of young couples have decided to host their weddings there because of the contemporary feel of the property,” Abbott added. “This is not the ballroom where their parents got married.”

In many cases, art that serves as the focal point of a hotel lobby or conference room can also become the centerpiece of a business meeting or special event. “We’ve actually had businesses look at our hotels due to the collections,” said Sonesta’s Juliano. “An association of visual arts professionals was consideri ng our hotel in Cambridge for a design conference. When their planners did the site inspection, they walked into the hotel and said this was it, hands down. No other conference space would be so exactly right for the tone of their event.”

To do that, Juliano and others insist, it isn’t enough that art collected by or commissioned for hotels be decorative or interesting. It also has to invite thought, make a statement or trigger an emotional reaction in the viewer. That requires hotel curators to walk a fine line, seeking art that provokes an audience while still allowing them to feel comfortable in a public space.

“One of our pieces that is somewhat controversial is Dark Oval #4, by Marie Ofalco,” said the Four Seasons’ Watkins. “It looks like a Cinderella mirror, and looking at it is like looking into your soul. Some people are turned away by it. It’s a powerful statement for the artist to make. You either really get it or really don’t.”

Artist De Boer decided to take a similar risk in creating his sculpture for the Hotel Arts. By day, his 18-foot sphere looks like a metallic tree — an allusion to the forests of Calgary’s past and the technological possibilities of its future. At night, when the sculpture’s multicolored LED screen comes to life, its straight lines, wavy curves and dotted rivets represent the lines, waves and particles of light, and offer a commentary on life itself.

“The ball really is all the elements of the universe described as an image,” De Boer said. “Once you have light, once you’re able to describe the universe, you have just about everything. It’s a beacon of light that’s meant to inspire people, to say, ‘Look what one guy can do if he cares — and has a budget.’ ”

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