Behind the scenes: The life of a hotel art curator

Jan 11, 2020

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Hotels around the world now strive to create a world-class impression with the art in their public spaces, and many are hiring curators to choose and arrange installations, as well as to organize ever-changing collections.

“Hotel art curators?” It is a real job title at these properties as they purposefully position themselves as “art hotels”. And smartphone cameras and Instagram-obsessed travelers have fueled this new way to keep a hotel in the public eye.

“Hotels need to create something new for the new demographic, the new generation that is all about taking photos of everything”, explains Tal Cooperman, the 38-year-old creative director of the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. “I’m not saying it has to be Instagram moments, I’m just saying we need to create moments. Moments that make people pay attention”.

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(Photo courtesy of Palms Resorts)
(Photo courtesy of Palms Resorts)

Cooperman oversees a collection at the Palms that includes seminal works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst, all on loan from the Fertitta family, the resort’s owners. Cooperman, who doesn’t have an art degree or a marketing degree, ended up as the collection’s curator because of his personal love for art, as well as his knowledge of street artists like Jason Revok, Kenny Scharf, Jordan Pose and Martha Cooper. Those artists’ works adorn the hotel’s Greene St. Kitchen, alongside Banksy’s “Smiley Coppers Panel 1,” a piece that Cooperman believes is “the only original Banksy inside a hotel”.

In Vegas, hotels compete to have world-class art collections with unique pieces on offer. MGM Resorts International (including the Bellagio and Aria hotels) has over 800 works of modern and contemporary art on display across the company’s holdings, with a net worth of about $250 million. There’s a huge Dale Chihuly glass sculpture in the Bellagio lobby, for example. Tarissa Tiberti is MGM’s executive director of arts and culture and holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts.

The Kimpton Carlyle Hotel Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., went a step further and hired an actual artist, Michele Oka Doner, to feature as part of a complete renovation of the property which debuted in 2015. Her original works grace the lobby (including a massive bronze chandelier) and are featured throughout the hotel’s large Oka Doner Suite. The property also has a designated public gallery space that is curated by Julie Ratner and Golie Miamee of Artworx Consultants.

(Photo courtesy of Kimpton Carlyle Hotel)
(Photo courtesy of Kimpton Carlyle Hotel)

“Kimpton has given us a huge opportunity”, Ratner says, “in the sense that they recognize that bringing a curated, rotating art collection to the hotel would not just enhance the aesthetics of the space, but also bring the community together. We did a show with the black artists of D.C. which was highly successful, got a huge crowd in there and involved curating a group of D.C. local artists. From that show we realized that if we stay with local artists for the hotel’s gallery, that’s the way to go”.

Around the world, hoteliers have jumped on the art bandwagon. The owners of the new Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River (opening in February 2020) enlisted designer Jean-Michel Gathy not only to do the interior design, but also to curate a bespoke art collection by Thai artist Pongsatat Uaiklang and other local artists from Bangkok’s Dong Sculpture. In Rome, architect Jean Nouvel recently spearheaded the Palazzo Rhinoceros The Rooms of Rome project, where you can literally sleep inside an art gallery in one of 24 individually designed apartments available to rent for a night – or a month.

At the elegant Hotel St. George in Helsinki, design guru Mirkku Kullberg helped put that new luxury hotel on the map. As the art curator/creative director, she installed Ai Weiwei’s kite sculpture of Tianwu, the white dragon, in the entrance lobby and then added striking pieces by renowned artists like sculptor Pekka Jylha throughout the hotel, helping it make a huge splash when it opened in 2017.

In Sydney at the ultra-mod QT Hotel, Amanda Love acts as the hip boutique hotel’s art curator. She leans toward video installations, with works by Aussie indigenous artist Daniel Boyd and Kiwi Daniel Crooks taking center stage in the public spaces. She also curates the art in the other cool QT Hotels in Melbourne, Bondi, Perth and Wellington, creating a vibe that lures hipsters in droves.

As hotels become art centers, they also need a staff to make that happen, from curators to security guards to help protect these assets.

“It’s a very collaborative undertaking”, comments Judith Tatar of Tatar Art Projects, who serves as the art curator for the Conrad Washington, D.C. hotel, and is also working on the massive refurbishment of the Waldorf Astoria New York. “For each project, you’ve got to satisfy what the narrative is for the hotel ownership, for the brand. The art needs to reflect the brand. You have to choose, to curate with the thought in mind: Does it meet with the Conrad brand, or the Waldorf brand? If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong in the collection”.

(Photo courtesy of Allegretto Vineyard Resort)
(Photo courtesy of Allegretto Vineyard Resort)

Many hotel owners, especially those who are already art lovers, want this brand awareness that their properties are places for sharing artistic endeavors. Douglas Ayers, for example, is part of a family that owns 24 hotels across California, including his personal project, the Allegretto Vineyard Resort in Paso Robles. Ayers built the hotel with the idea of installing his large personal art collection – and he’s his own curator. The resort has massive ancient sculptures from India and China, paintings and pieces by local Central Coast artists, a collection of Russian Impressionist works and much more.

“I have loved museums and art since I was a child”, Ayers recalls. “So what my vision was for Allegretto, I wanted it to feel like a museum or an art gallery. For me, the art in the hotel is an expression of joy. It’s a gift for me, to give others that joy when they visit”.

And as for those Instagram posts his guests love to share? That’s just an extra bit of joy – and a bonus marketing tool as well.

Featured photo courtesy of Palms Resorts.

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