10 -min. read

Flanked by boutiques from Chanel; Louis Vuitton; Alexander McQueen and Manolo Blahnik, a 6ft 5”, mirror-finished Popeye raises a beefy fist into the air — an air saturated with wealth, and of opulence and chance; a chance engendered by the imminent wins or losses of high-rolling risk-takers . Popeye and his shiny muscles are a far cry from the sailor’s humble mantra: “I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam” . $28,115,000 of stainless steel is what this Popeye is. We’re in the Wynn Esplanade at Wynn Las Vegas, and Popeye is the work of divisive, mega-rich New York artist Jeff Koons. Welcome to the insane world of hotel art.

Jeff Koons's Popeye at Wynn Las Vegas
Jeff Koons’s Popeye at Wynn Las Vegas

When he purchased a small stake in Vegas’ Frontier Hotel and Casino at the end of the 1960s, a young Steve Wynn probably didn’t imagine blowing nearly 30 million dollars on a lustrous comic book character — but, working with mythical names like Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra, Wynn’s rise to Mr Casino was confirmed when in 1987 he sold The Atlantic City Golden Nugget for some $440 million. An equally apt moniker would be Mr Art, the magnate shuffling around Turners, Rembrandts and Picassos (Wynn sold famed Le Rêve for $155 million in 2013) as part of an art collection as renowned as his hotel portfolio; amongst which much of the former is scattered.

Art in hotels is nothing new, mind — Claude Monet became The Savoy Hotel’s first artist-in-residence in 1901, painting views of the Thames from his balcony. Nice’s Le Negresco marked its commitment to the arts early on, commissioning Gustave Eiffel to design a glass dome for its Royal Lounge in 1912, a portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud is identical to one hung at The Louvre.  Opened in 1963 by Conrad N.Hilton, the Rome Cavalieri may not share the same heritage, but its art collection sure does: two Beauvais tapestries from 1725 are the only of their kind you’ll see outside of a gallery, three works by 18th century Venetian master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo occupy its lobby.

Rome Cavalieri
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painting at the Rome Cavalieri

And the lavish collections show no sign of abating: a relative newcomer, The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore (opened in 1996) have splashed millions on a collection that is well in excess of 4,000 works.

Like Steve Wynn, many hoteliers see their properties as perfect places to keep (and show off) their wealth of works. Cricket and Marty Taplin were longtime collectors prior to opening the doors of the Sagamore, Miami Beach, in 2001 — the Art Deco building now as much gallery as it is hotel. At the highest end of the accommodation spectrum, art collector Jean Pigozzi has an expansive luxury villa on a private Panamanian island which asserts to have the world’s largest collection of contemporary African art, cheek by jowl with the likes of Damien Hirst. Keeping things Central America, a sculpture by artist KAWS sits pride of place at Casa Malca, a brand-new spot in Tulum, Mexico, belonging to New York art scene mover-and-shaker Lio Malca.

Casa Malca, Tulum
A KAWS’s Companion figure sits centre stage at art collector Lio Malca’s Casa Malca, Tulum

And in Zürich, following an extensive overhaul by Norman Foster in 2008, the exceedingly luxurious Dolder Grand found itself home to one of the country’s most significant private art collections; at the behest of majority shareholder Urs Schwarzenbach. Alongside over 40,000 square metres of decadent luxury, you can peruse works from Dalí; Warhol; Takashi Murakami; Anish Kapoor; Keith Haring and … Sylvester Stallone. Whoever said wealth accounted for taste?

A display of means; throwing the doors open, stepping inside and spraying WE ARE GRANDIOSE on the corridor walls — might there be only so many paintings you can hang, so many exhibitions of opulence? Art Hotel is a term persistently bandied about. Are you an Art Hotel because you hang priceless work by a Rococo great, because casino money paid for that Koons? For me, the term implies that the two are intrinsically linked; a doddering old married couple limping through life, destined to remain together.

Pablo Picasso at La Colombe d’Or
Pablo Picasso at La Colombe d’Or

Family run Provence inn La Colombe d’Or suggests exactly that relationship. Its owner forging friendships with artists like Georges Braque and Fernand Léger, with whom he would trade accommodation for art. Gaining a reputation for both its inclusiveness and geographical seclusion in the ‘20s and ‘30s, names like Picasso and Matisse joined those whose work would hang in place of a free feed and stay. It became quite the hangout for creatives whiling away their time on the Cote d’Azur, and retains its bohemian spirit today — predating the label Art Hotel by some decades.

Fast-forward almost a century, and the battle for differential features — that began in the 1980s when Ian Schrager laid the foundations for the boutique boom with his Andrée Putman-led Morgans Hotel renovation — has seen a need for art to cross the divide from bedroom wall or lobby installation to an all-encompassing undertaking. The creative class are restless … we want more!

“In order to rise above the luxury travel noise, a hotel needs to bring an immersive experience to the guest in a novel yet sincere fashion”, imparts D.K. Johnston — curator at New York hotel The Quin. Yes, hotels have art curators, and they are rapidly becoming a key cog in the hospitality wheel.


Determined to respect the creative legacy of its neighbourhood, The James New York immersed itself in art before opening in SoHo five years ago; curator Matt Jensen assigning a local, up-and-coming artist to each of its 14 floors — one of whom, Brooklynite Jessica Cannon,  spoke to  The New York Times: “You can have this encounter with work that’s very intimate, almost like it’s in a home or an empty gallery, but you can have it on your own time, if someone’s got insomnia at 3 in the morning, they can pace the halls and have a really intimate and personal encounter.”

It’s this intimacy that is feeding art’s flourishing relationship with hotels, more about illuminating the guest experience than showing off a private owner’s collection. “Redefining hotel art is about giving the guests quality experiences, causing reflection and perhaps changing their perception of reality for a brief moment” explains Sune Nordgren, art curator at Oslo hotel THE THIEF, which is a central figure in the city’s new Tjuvholmen arts district, and has a unique arrangement with neighbour Astrup Fearnley (an important new gallery exhibiting the likes of Elmgreen & Dragset; Cindy Sherman; Warhol and Damien Hirst) whereby the hotel can borrow key works.

The Schaller Studio
The Schaller Studio, Bendigo, by Art Series Hotel Group

Elsewhere, hotels are taking immersion further and further. With each property taking key design cues — and even their names — from a different Australian contemporary artist (e.g. Adam Cullen informing Melbourne’s The Cullen; Bendigo’s The Schaller Studio drawing its influences from Mark Schaller), Art Series Hotel Group uses art as a starting point for its overall ethos.

NEW Hotel, Athens
NEW Hotel, Athens

Ethos is pivotal over in Athens too, where NEW Hotel — whose owner Dakis Joannou is so consumed with art (and incredibly rich) that he commissioned Jeff Koons to collaborate on his 115-foot dazzle camouflage super-yacht — is a kind of walk-through installation, revered Brazilian design/art duo the Campana Brothers designing every corner of the hotel from scratch. Here your coexistence with art is both inescapable and imperceptible; the veracious illustration of hotel art as immersive experience.

Back in the States,  21c Museum Hotel’s four properties truly blur the lines between gallery and hotel; each hotel accompanied by an art gallery, complete with rotating exhibitions and permanent collections. Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris goes one step further than employing solely an art curator, the luxury hotel — recently reimagined by Philippe Starck — has an Art Concierge for its ‘Art District’ … Julie Eugène will talk guests through the hotel’s extensive collection; organise private viewings at galleries around the city; arrange studio visits; hell, she’ll even invite an artist over to the hotel to sit down and have a cuppa with you.

Faena District Miami Beach
Faena District Miami Beach (Render)

Starck is rarely far from digressions involving the words art and hotel; as well as leading the Royal Monceau’s commitment to art, the celebrated French designer was a key figure in the development of Faena Buenos Aires — where the man in the fedora puts art centre stage in his Faena District. Dutch-Belgian design studio, Studio Job, are the current stars of the show at Faena Art Center Buenos Aires, with a mammoth roller disco cathedral installation. Quite. Alan Faena’s $1 billion Miami Beach development — which has names like Rem Koolhaas, Foster + Partners and Baz Luhrmann onboard — will see an inconceivably swanky hotel positioned alongside a series of major cultural institutions.

Futopia Faena
Studio Job, Futopia Faena at Faena Art Center, Buenos Aires

Aside from ticking boxes, staying one step ahead of the opposition, what the hell is the point in recklessly squandering so much money on fine art? University College London neurobiologist Professor Semir Zeki might have the answer. The learned Turkish-born scientist conducted a brain-scan study ,confirming a feel-good factor in art — viewing a series of 28 works by classical artists caused an increased blood flow (similar to that experienced when falling in love) in the grey matter of the experiment’s volunteers.

“There is a great deal of dopamine in this area, also known as the ‘feel-good’ transmitter” he confirms. And, whether we’re talking about the mysterious ‘creative class’; very important business folk; Betty and John on their 50th wedding anniversary; or the Griswolds on vacation, happy guests equal happy hoteliers.

Tántalo Hotel, Panama City
Tántalo Hotel, Panama City

And where better to work that dopamine than in the rooms themselves. Sure, pacing corridors-cum-galleries in the twilight hours or quaffing champers underneath a Damien Hirst spin painting are things bound to enhance the guest experience, but there are a handful of forward-thinking establishments taking it a step further — positioning your bedroom as the canvas.

Playland Motel, Rockaway Beach
Playland Motel, Rockaway Beach

Playland Motel on New York City’s rough-and-ready Rockaway Beach; San Francisco’s Hotel Des Arts; Panama City’s Tántalo Hotel; Au Vieux Panier, Marseille (which gave us street arist Tilt’s famous half and half Panic Room) … just some of the spots where each room has been given a new identity by individual artists.

“Via art, experience is heightened, elevated, made more memorable and significant”: Ellen Dissanayake — the scholar whose 2000 book, Art and Intimacy, explores the importance of art in ‘being human’ — sheds light on the holistic philosophy behind art and experience. You see, 2015’s guests may be content with an experiential immersion in the arts, with dopamine-boosting appreciation, with feeling good. But what of 2016; ’17; ’18 … ? Is sleeping amidst works of art enough?

Since 2011, the artists behind Zürich-based project THE PROPOSAL have overseen projects putting ‘guests’ on a gallery floor; in the back of a 1977 Peugeot J7; in a lace tent. You become part of the installation — you are not just immersed in art … you are the art. How far can curators and hoteliers and artists take us humble guests? Is Tracey Emin working on a collaboration with Hilton: My Bed 2.0? Marina Abramović in talks with Holiday Inn about randomly appearing at the foot of your bed, silently watching you?

Zürich’s THE PROPOSAL has turned the ‘art hotel’ on its head, putting the bedroom inside the gallery.

It would seem art and hotels look set to remain allies in sating the cultural hunger of the creative class for a significant stretch; but spare a thought for those who miss the mark. In 2011, The Ritz-Carlton Los Angeles reminded us that not all behind the hospitality scenes are so passionate about contemporary art. In an event that ran side-by-side with the Los Angeles Art Show, curator Bryson Strauss gathered together work that would be shown in multi-million dollar residences that the hotel were trying to flog — Shepard Fairey, Henri Cartier-Bresson and David LaChapelle some of the names whose work was displayed. With the penthouse unsold, murals by three internationally-renowned street artists (Mear One, Chor Boogie and Shark Toof) were kept on under agreement that they would be, at some stage, professionally de-installed and returned to the artists.

Shark Toof
Shark Toof works on one of the murals disposed of by The Ritz-Carlton Los Angeles

But it seems someone didn’t get the memo, and the works — valued at $100,000 — were binned in a cleanup. Binned. “The loss of nearly 90 feet of murals by world-class artists is a tragedy. As a person who has committed his life to art and artists, I can’t get my head around the indifference” gasped Strauss. A reminder that street art retains some of its stigma amongst some of the people? Or simply a lack of regard for a pairing that are at the core of contemporary travel? Be careful, be considerate, be respectful, and be sure you checked the insurance policy.

And that, my friends, is the vulnerability of a twain that for now bed down together in harmony — art and hotels, and art hotels, and hotels who cherish art … for hundreds of years the couplet have coexisted in grandeur; collaboration; immersion and experience. But nobody can predict where they will sleep in the future. 

Night night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the formaldehyde-preserved shark bite.


James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.

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