Five Star Art

by Mark Calderwood

zahalka hotel

It’s been a long trip, but worthwhile. Your spirits lift and you feel the tiring drive already fading to a dim memory as you step into an amber-lit space that’s more art gallery than hotel lobby.

Settling into a comfortable chair to contemplate an unexpectedly arresting contemporary print, you soon find yourself not only restored but reinvigorated, reassured about your hotel and certainly curious to learn more about its art. The ancien regime of stale abstract and faux-impressionist print is long over, and Australia’s leading hotels are adorning their premises with art that reflects the quality and innovation of their hospitality.

These days, of course, we expect more than just room service and designer linens from a hotel: with travel now such a common aspect of both business and leisure, our expectations of a given destination have evolved . Research by the Australian Hotels Association has shown that more and more, Australian travellers are singling out hotels that can offer them a unique experience of their chosen destination.

Obviously, if you’re into art, you’ll find a hotel for the arts intriguing. Over 12 years, Sofitel Melbourne has kept its finger on the pulse of Australia’s cultural capital, sponsoring many of its household names- ACCA, NGV, Bell Shakespeare, Chunky Move, the L’Óreal Fashion Festival, Melbourne Writers Festival, to drop a few. Sofitel Melbourne is best known for its arts and theatre packages, one of its earliest innovations which has made the hotel a first choice for interstate guests. The popularity of The Lion King and Spamalot looks set to continue with the hit musical Wicked, which opened in July with a lavish green-carpet affair at the hotel.

While most contemporary hotels display art, Sofitel Melbourne uniquely stages up to sixteen exhibitions a year in its spacious lobby and adjoining Sofi’s café. With large numbers passing through it daily, it is highly visible location with enormous potential for exposure. “The work needs to be eye-catching, professional and engaging in the space,” says arts consultant Donald Williams.

“While it’s a dynamic space, we also make it a serious one, a place to show serious, even challenging, art. It’s essential that the hotel for the arts shows only quality work,” Williams insists. While showing mainly Australian artists, the focus is international, with Japanese and Inuit artists recently being exhibited.

With the adventurous support of General Manager Clive Scott, Williams has pursued some edgy experiments, notably liaising with Experimenta to stage a micro-exhibition of interactive media art. ZiZi the Afffectionate Couch, part alien pet, part wriggling, touch-repsonsive chaise longue, and Narinda Reeders’ impish The Shy Picture, whose characters flee from sight on being approached, surprised and enchanted guests. ZiZi’s creator Stephen Barrass is delighted that people were able to form a relationship with the work over time. “Even the staff couldn’t stop playing with it,” he laughs.

zahalka hotel couch

In the same vein, photographer Anne Zahalka’s explored behind the scenes at a five star hotel as part of Sofitel’s artist’s residency program, and sculptor Donna Marcus ransacked the kitchens to create snowflake-like installations from old pans. “We always try to cross-promote in conjunction with other events, for example, Anne Zahalka’s exhibition at Arc One, or William Yang at Monash Gallery,” says Sofitel’s Annie Dawson. “Forging those reciprocal links is very important to us.”

Williams approaches the Sofitel like a continual art event. “Not being tied to a collection means we can keep the lobby fresh and changing, and relate it to current cultural events.”

The Westin Melbourne takes a different approach. Respected curator John Buckley has assembled a permanent art collection that speaks to and enriches designer Sue Carr’s luxuriant interiors, whose hints of fin de siecle and art deco amid the clean contemporary lines convey a specific sense of Melbourne- sophisticated, cultural and artistic.

“Art is a vital part of the Westin,” says Buckley, gesturing magisterially to the surrounding crème of Australian art, before noting that several works were commissioned especially for the hotel. “As well as enriching the space overall, the works provide moments of curiosity and reflection.”

Bill-Henson paris

Buckley delved literally into a sense of place, inspired by the hotel’s position at the entrance to Collins St’s smart Paris strip to collect works that recalled 19th century elegance in a contemporary way. His first unerring selection was Bill Henson’s Paris Opera Suite, an opulent and exquisitely luminous series of works. Delicate etchings of period lace resonate against bolder contemporary works such as painter Steig Persson’s Radiant, which marries with the starkly elegant, natural timber and black and white décor of Allegro restaurant.

“My main concern with the collection has been that it be good art, that has a consistent connection running throughout,” Buckley muses. “But you also need to wear your interior designer’s hat to judge what art works in each particular space.”

Quite a challenge, given that the display runs throughout the hotel. Carefully selected works by Imants Tillers and Jenny Watson add interest in the Westin business centre, and intimate and transporting works such as David Stephenson’s church domes impart a tranquil air to the spacious guest rooms above.

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Outstanding among the commissioned works are the pendant lights created by West Australian metal smith Carlier Makigawa. Inspired by 1920s jewellery designs, the striking brushed steel and silver arabesque cages are bold yet understated sculptural features weightlessly commanding the atrium. And it’s as twilight falls, in the lambent glow of Makigawa’s chandeliers, that the dark pictures, already beautiful, take on hypnotic depths. “Dark works, nocturnes, are fascinating,” smiles Buckley. “The eye is more open in dim light, more susceptible to subtleties and detail. They draw you beneath their surface.”

“Art like this rarely found, it’s usually shunted aside by commercial galleries to show art is brash and young and loud. These works have a certain maturity and sophistication. This is art you have to spend time with.”

Fortunately, Westin’s Unwind hour presents the perfect opportunity. Candlelight and music creates a restful atmosphere in the lobby lounge, and after sampling Victorian wines and gourmet tasting plates, curious guests often opt for a self-guided tour of Westin’s collection to deepen their experience of the art.

“It’s important that the collection affirms a sense of place and that pause for contemplation,” says Buckley. “We need those reminders to balance the 24-hour, free-fall lifestyles we increasingly lead.”

Further south, that hectic pace falls away like a dream in the Henry Jones Art Hotel. Located on the waterfront, the award-winning hotel occupies a heritage building dating to the Hobart Town settlement in 1825, later serving as a whaling station before becoming Henry Jones and Co’s iconic IXL jam factory.

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Architect Robert Morris-Nunn met the daunting task of converting the original building into contemporary accommodation by creating a hotel that was a work of art in itself. No two of the Henry Jones’ 50 guest rooms are alike, and many retain intact the original sandstone walls and timber trusses. “There’s real historic significance to the hotel that guests pick up on immediately,” says resident curator Christine Scott. “They get that really intense sensation of being somewhere, of being in some sense within the history of the Tasmania.”

Even without the breathtaking views, that sense of place underlies every artwork to be found in the hotel. “We choose the highest calibre works by established local artists and recent graduates of the respected Tasmanian School of Art,” says Scott.

Reflecting the fragile beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness, many of the Henry Jones’ works centre around the environment, cultural identity, a sense of local history and the craftsmanship that goes into painting and printmaking. “It shows what Tasmanians really think and care deeply about,” Scott murmurs.

“The art sits so comfortably with the beautiful stone and rustic timber that we use original works in the guest rooms, which gives each one its own distinct feel. Many of our guests stay with us because we are specifically an art hotel, but we also attract those who might be curious about art, but have felt put off by pretentious commercial galleries.”

miloj round

Printmaker Milan Milojevic, whose intricately etched digital prints inspired by the Tasmanian forests are represented in national collections, agrees. “There may be less narrative than in a gallery, but on the whole the setting is kinder. After living with an artwork for a few days they build an affinity with it, and can easily imagine it in their homes.”

Which is fortunate since, not content to offer five-star comfort, amenities, food and wine, the Henry Jones offers all of its exhibited artworks for sale. And with 330 works exhibited at any one time, the hotel easily rivals any institution outside a public art gallery. While most go to the Australian mainland, Scott is elated that last year, almost 30% of purchases were by international guests.

“When we opened in 2004, we were the only art hotel in Australia. There was no business model we could follow. Our current approach has come from doing back then what we still do best today- being heartfelt and spontaneous, and letting out our enjoyment of what we do.” If the two-dozen national and international awards including the prestigious Condé Nast Traveller Gold in 2008 are any hint, it seems to be working.

The Henry Jones is an example of the innovative boutique phenomenon: generally smaller hotels- though still boasting generous amenities- tailoring their appeal to particular tastes and interests- art, cuisine, spirituality, technology. With their distinctive style reflecting their individuality and cachet, boutique hotels typically attract a discerning, highly individual clientele. For the sophisticated traveller, they are the right place to stay.

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The Storrier is the apotheosis of the boutique hotel, designed entirely around the work of artist Tim Storrier. His Point to Point (Evening Blaze) dominates the foyer, no less for its stark beauty and enigmatic, luminous arcs and surges of suspended fire than for its monumental size, 3.5 metres long.

The driving force behind the hotel is enterprising hotelier Will Deague, whose family funded a creative adventure to the edge of barren Lake Eyre for Storrier and nine other eminent Australian artists in 2001. Aware of the growing trend for boutique hotels overseas- and no doubt, their commercial potential- Deague saw art as a way to bring the boutique concept to the Australian market. Opened in December 2007, the 70 room Storrier is the first of seven planned hotels featuring artworks from the Deague family’s private collection.

Following the restoration of the hotel’s five-storey art deco premises in Sydney’s King’s Cross, award-winning interior designer David Hicks stamped his extravagant flair onto the Storrier’s ground floor lobby and adjoining Red Belly restaurant. Taking its design cues from the iconic artwork, the Storrier’s lobby features distinctive, custom made furniture upholstered in nude leather tones and pink granite flooring that recalls the red earth of Central Australia.

It’s no surprise that the new sector has refused to obey the old rules. Boutique hotels have defined a prosperous niche of their own, outperforming larger chains by creating an “economy of experience”. Even in an insidiously globalised world, individuality and independence of spirit still matters, and art hotels create unconventional, memorable experiences…that sometimes, you can take a piece of home.

Published Driven, 2008

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