Art First, Hotel Second

By David Ashen Principal and Founder, dash design | 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.

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