A Warhol in the foyer, a Hockney in the restaurant, a Richter in the corridor – art once served merely as decoration in hotels, then later, as evidence of luxury and taste. Today it has become a business.
Check in at The Dolder Grand hotel high on Zürichberg hill and you will find yourself first taking a couple of steps backwards. That’s because above the reception desk, there’s a painting 11 meters wide that can only be fully appreciated from a distance; only then does the explosion of color come into its own – the blue, the green, the red and the purple – with its overlaid silkscreen prints of cow’s heads, Mao, and at the far-right edge of the picture, the image of the creator himself: Andy Warhol. Eighty million Swiss francs, at the time roughly 61 million euros, is what the “Big Retrospective Painting” created in 1979 is said to have been worth when it arrived at the Swiss five-star palace five years ago.
And it’s not the only eye-catcher at The Dolder Grand. With more than 100 paintings and sculptures on display, the venerable establishment with the new Norman Foster wing can also be regarded as a small museum. Gerhard Richter, Salvador Dalí, Keith Haring … the crowd-pulling names of the art market adorn the restaurant, the garden and the spa here. The value of the collection must be somewhere in the region of the three-digit millions. Asked to name a figure, General Manager Marc Jacob, who is also responsible for the art, responds with the most famous of all Swiss virtues: discretion.
“As a hotel guest, you don’t necessarily expect to see artworks,” says Jacob. He speaks of the element of surprise, the special ambience art creates, of how art is an important part of the hotel’s identity. These days, unique works by the likes of Jeff Koons and Pablo Picasso are enhancing the image of five-star hotels all around the world. With them, hotels aim to set themselves apart from other hotels and hotel chains that feature the same interior design and layout everywhere from Tel Aviv to Tokyo and Toronto. As the trend toward custom-made vacations continues, so the hotel industry is also going for the individual touch. The special experience begins when a traveler enters the hotel and encounters elaborate art right there in the lobby. Take the Wynn Las Vegas, for instance, with its nearly two-meter-tall steel Popeye by Jeff Koons that’s worth 28 million US dollars – just under 25 million euros.
However, exhibiting artworks in the lobby is just one of many ways to acquaint guests with first-rate art. Many establishments go one step further and cooperate with artists, and employ their own curators and advisors. There are hotels with artist-in-residence programs, hotels offering public tours of their own collections, museums with adjoining hotels and vice-versa, and hotels that own works created especially for them.
Star painter and movie director Julian Schnabel, for example, curated for the Gramercy Park in New York the selection of pictures from founder Ian Schrager’s collection: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst and – once again – Warhol. At The Beaumont in London, Turner Prize winner Sir Antony Gormley was commissioned to create an entire suite as an artwork. For the pleasure of sleeping in the Zen serenity of a giant, oak-clad, cuboid figure, guests allegedly part with 2500 pounds a night (around 2900 euros). So art not only serves to distinguish a hotel from its competition, but in the travel industry is now also part of a lucrative business model that makes even collectors sit up and take notice. Because artists who are seen will also continue to be talked about – and that means they are interesting for the market.
Hotels cooperate with artists and employ their own curators, advisors and gallerists
The French billionaire Jean Pigozzi gave his private resort, Isla Simca, off the coast of Panama a sophisticated touch with works by Hirst and African painters, such as George Lilanga. The Hong Kong property mogul George Wong presented his Hotel Éclat in Beijing with a Dalí collection. In Zurich, it was financial investor Urs Schwarzenbach who placed part of his collection in the Dolder Grand, which in turn is one of the assets in his real estate portfolio. Pop art and Surrealism, here they shimmer many-colored and resplendent in elegant surroundings.
Ask Dowling about the colors of the past, and she cites gray and peach. They were the shades hoteliers wanted to see in their rooms 30 years ago – preferably on poster prints. Dowling, who hails from the United States, could be described as the gray eminence of art consulting. She worked at a gallery in New York before moving to London in the early 1980s, then specialized in kitting out hotels with art, and ultimately founded her own agency, Artefact. In the early days, her work consisted of hunting down bargains. The budgets for art – or what hoteliers considered to be art – were then in the three-figure bracket, for which Dowling could at best trawl the flea markets. Today, she’s an art agent administering six-figure budgets for projects all over the globe. Dowling has also procured artworks for The Beaumont hotel in London’s sophisticated Mayfair district. First she met with the interior designer and discussed the hotel’s 1920s theme. Then she purchased original paintings at auctions and commissioned artists to work in the style of that period. Now she has painters, sculptors and designers sending her their portfolios in hopes of snagging a contract. “Artists write to me every week,” says Dowling. Her example, too, shows how the cultural elite can benefit from the luxury industry.
But why have budgets skyrocketed so, how did art suddenly become a selling point? “The clientele has changed,” says Dowling. Art no long exists only on the edge of society; today, it’s mainstream. People stand in line for hours to see exhibitions. Art fairs like the Frieze in London and Art Basel with its offshoots in Hong Kong and Miami Beach have become must-attend events in the social calendar, complete with pop, party and paparazzi. This is something the clientele of a luxury hotel also considers. Guests put up there to be seen as “savvy,” says Dowling, as smart and sophisticated. Some may well already own some art and have an invitation to the next Art Basel in their pocket.
Minda Dowling used to scour flea markets, today the art agent has six-figure budgets at her disposal
Over the past ten years, the art market has exploded. A Gerhard Richter, an Anselm Kiefer, a Georg Baselitz – all are now deemed a worthwhile investment, and more and more people are willing to make it. While the oil price is falling and share prices have gone haywire, the value of some contemporary artists is rising astronomically. Companies in the hotel industry also need to take that into account. In addition to all this, a general redistribution of wealth is in progress. Never have there been so many billionaires in the world, never did so many of them come from Arabia or Asia. They have not amassed centuries’-old family collections, but they are very interested in obtaining the insignia of the ancient moneyed aristocracy. For clients such as these, the Le Royal Monceau in Paris provides a special service: its own, in-house gallery. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, gallerist and art concierge Julie Eugène offers contemporary artworks for sale. The 32-year-old says works priced at up to 500 000 euros already hang on the hotel’s walls. She is discretion itself when it comes to commission, but it is safe to assume that art is a lucrative sideline for the hotel.
In addition to selling artworks, Eugène informs the hotel’s guests about exhibitions showing at museums and galleries in town, and if they wish, she will also accompany visitors. She sends out a newsletter, writes a blog and brings young artists to light. The concept is so popular with the hotel’s guests that the Raffles Group, which owns the Royal Monceau, is now about to hire a second art concierge to work at a new hotel in Istanbul.
“I was very surprised to receive the job offer,” Eugène admits, “I had never occurred to me before that a hotel could need my services.” Nevertheless, she did not hesitate to accept. Hervé Mikaeloff, the renowned curator in charge of the art activities of the LVMH Group (Louis Vuitton, Dior, Fendi), was responsible for the selection at the Royal Monceau. With him, the young gallerist built up the hotel’s collection, which gives pride of place to contemporary photography.
Gallerists, artists, collectors, hoteliers, and last but not least guests – all benefit from the boom. The hotel has become a microcosm of the art market, and that also includes some day selling a picture or a sculpture. An investment can only yield a profit if the owner can let it go. In Chicago, the Pritzker family (number seven on the Forbes list of the wealthiest families in the USA), which owns the Hyatt hotels, parted company in 2013 with the enormous painting “Cathedral Square, Milan” by the German artist Gerhard Richter. For years, it had graced the lobby of the Park Hyatt Chicago, until it changed hands at a Sotheby’s Auction for a cool 29 million euros. Now a work by Sigmar Polke welcomes guests to the hotel in Chicago. The gleaming Popeye statue by Jeff Koons is also destined to take to the road. But instead of going to a new owner, the muscleman will simply be moving to Everett near Boston in 2019, where the next hotel in the Wynn empire is currently under construction.