A few weekends ago, I slept with a native in a 10-gallon hat. He had long braids with feathers woven into them. But his eyes were not kind.
I caught their baleful expression staring at me – and scaring me – when I happened to glance in a mirror. For a moment, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
What kind of hotel, I mean. Hotels are supposed to be your home away from home. That's the premise anyway. This room that you have never seen before is where you will commit your most private acts. You sleep. You fart. You have sex. You pad around naked.
Yet hotels are never really like home – and not just because you imagine all the guests who have been nude on that bedspread you're sitting on. Mostly, it's because of the art on the walls. Beds are beds and showers are showers but art is not always art, even if you're supposed to believe it is. (I am thinking of red splotches on framed pieces of paper I once contemplated while sick in a hotel room in Montreal. They made me feel more nauseous, to be honest.)
But it's not just the bad art and questionable sanitation that can remind you that you are far, far from home. There's a new trend in the hotel industry designed to make your stay feel like you've entered a museum. You can sleep with Andy Warhol. Or dine with a Damien Hirst. Perhaps you would like to undress in front of a Picasso. For a few days, you can live surrounded by great, priceless art.
For some super-rich global travellers, this inclusion of fine art in the public and private spaces of luxury hotels is a question of what I call Lifestyle Anxiety. At a certain level of wealth, it is unsettling to be subjected to anything other than the best, and if you're accustomed to great art at home, well, can you imagine how disturbing bad red splotches in a hotel room might be? Joe Brennan, the luxury builder in Toronto, once described to me the preoccupation some high-end homeowners have for perfection – in everything from the cashmere of their sweaters to the quality of wood for their bookshelves and the way their eggs Benedict arrives on a plate. It is a matter of pride – and perceived knowledge of what constitutes fine living.
Hotels have caught on. For some first-rate properties, important art is a way of underscoring their brand. At Toronto's Shangri-La, which opened in 2012, the sculpture Rising by Zhang Huan, which sits outside the entrance on University Avenue, was a bold way to announce the hotel's arrival. "We wanted it to be as abstract as possible so that it becomes an attraction site for people, and we want people to always wonder what it is," comments consulting hotel curator Maggie Wang in an e-mail exchange. (The artist describes the polished stainless-steel sculpture as peace pigeons and twisted tree branches made to resemble the body of a dragon, representing a "wish for beautiful city life to be shared by mankind and nature.")
The large artwork in the lobby, corridors and some hotel rooms of the Shangri-La is a diplomatic envoy of sorts. The piece by Shanghai artist Wang Xuyuan "combines both Western painting and Chinese calligraphy," notes Maggie Wang, who worked with the Art Gallery of Ontario on its acquisitions. "It's a new art form called Hanshu. … We want to combine both the Western and Eastern cultures as we are introducing an Asian brand into the Western market."
For other luxury hotels, museum-quality art is a reflection of the local culture. In Vancouver, the Rosewood Hotel Georgia houses one of the country's largest collection of privately owned Canadian art. (The art collection of over 200 pieces is owned by Tony Hii, the Singapore-based chair of Delta Group, the property developers.)Opened after extensive renovations in 2011 as part of the Rosewood Hotel Group, the property showcases works by Jack Shadbolt, Guido Molinari, Alan Wood, Marel Barbeau and Douglas Coupland, among others.
"Some of the sculptures are in a glass box and there is glass protecting some of the painting, but many of them are simply framed as they would be in a museum," says Katie Dunn, publicist for the hotel. "The philosophy of the group is a sense of place. They want each hotel to evince being in that location." Two of the hotel's largest and most luxurious accommodations, the Lord Stanley Suite and the Rosewood Suite, have valuable art in them as well. But there's no concern about security, Dunn explains demurely. "The clientele that comes to this hotel does not have the reputation of people who would [steal or harm art]," she says. "The owners trust these guests." In the high season, the suites in question go for $6,000 a night, she says.
Similarly, L'Hotel in Old Montreal, built in 1870 as the head office for the Montreal City and District Savings Bank, houses a large contemporary art collection including works by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Chagall and Robert Rauschenberg.
Some pieces in guest rooms are behind glass. "People are just more arts savvy. We live in a world where you can travel anywhere. There is a bit of an expectation as well," says Olga Evstifeeva, Hotel and Resort Studio Lead at Mackay Wong Strategic Design, an international design and concept firm in Toronto that specializes in the hotel industry. Mackay Wong works with Delta and Marriot, chains that develop a "brand look" for their properties. The art choices follow suit. Without the big budgets to purchase a permanent collection of note, many hotel properties work with local galleries to borrow pieces. Others offer them for sale. "When business travellers come to a city, they have two nights to spend there, and most of the days are taken up with meetings. So do they really have time to go out and explore? The hotel art is a reflection of the city," says Evstifeeva.
Sure, but in some cases, as with my recent hotel experience with The Baleful Eyes of the Native (my title, of course), the art is a reason to hightail it out of there and find a nice park bench where I can watch the local life go by.
Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites.