Hotels are rivalling galleries as the world’s top art destinations
The term ‘art hotel’ has become what ‘design hotel’ was 20 years ago – here’s how, and why
Elma Arts Complex Luxury Hotel, Zichron Ya’akov, Israel
As the evening sun dips behind the Mount Carmel ridge, Sigalit Landau’s colossal marble statue, Thirsty, is thrown into stark relief – barbed shadows dancing across the 26-tonne form of two figures locked in perpetual exertion. Holding fort opposite reception, it’s the opening gambit at Zichron Ya’akov’s Elma Arts Complex, a 95-room hotel founded by art collector and philanthropist Lily Elstein in 2015. It’s one of over 500 works from her archive that grace the grounds, in addition to those part of temporary exhibitions. And while the Jacob Rechter architecture and astonishing location are undoubtedly draws, it’s this array of artwork that is Elma’s raison d’être.
It’s an example of the changed fortunes of so-called ‘hotel art’, once seen as little more than background dressing; abstract pieces in sofa-matching colours or hackneyed watercolours of local landmarks. Of course, over the years a specialised industry has emerged, dedicated to the procurement and curation of artwork collections for hospitality – that often rival those of any independent gallery and provide a cultural tether for travellers.
Sigalit Landau’s colossal marble statue at Elma Arts Complex. Photography: Itay Sikolsky
‘We’re in the business of providing ideas,’ says Melita Skamnaki, co-founder of Double Decker, an art curation studio based in East London. ‘By creating bespoke collections – that weave a collective narrative – we connect guests with their surroundings. It’s visual storytelling.’
Double Decker applied this sense-of-place philosophy to its partnership with Poland’s Puro Hotels, arguably the country’s first design-led hotel group. Double Decker worked with PURO until 2017, collaborating with local artists on original commissions across the first wave of pioneering properties, including Poznań and Gdansk. The studio set out to present a Poland of creativity and modernity, while preserving the story of its industrial and seafaring past, tapping some of the country’s most compelling artistic talents – the likes of Marta Szostek and Michał Szlaga. Since then, the group’s collections have been overseen by in-house curator and art collection editor, Zuzanna Zakaryan, who has continued this progressive approach at Puro’s hotels in Lodz, Warsaw and Krakow.
Artwork created and produced by Double Decker at Puro Gdansk. Photography: Anna Stathaki
‘The term ‘art hotel’ has become what ‘design hotel’ was 20 years ago, a new way to impress,’ says Sune Nordgren, the celebrated Swedish art expert who curated the collections of Oslo’s The Thief and Stockholm’s At Six. At the latter, an enormous sculptural head by Jaume Plensa stares down arrivals, seemingly cleaved from the same marble as the lobby staircase, while at The Thief a renowned image by Richard Prince greets, a cowboy and horse locked in a ferocious battle of wills; a charged study of liberation and individualism. Nordgren chose them for their ‘immediate impact’, both acting as pavement-adjacent lightning rods for artistically disposed travellers. They holler vociferously that the collections that unfold beyond are to be taken seriously – more than mere background noise and featuring luminaries like Andy Warhol and Julian Opie at The Thief and Tacita Dean and Olafur Eliasson at At Six.
But if the boundaries between gallery spaces and hotels are getting a tad fuzzy, it’s perhaps most obvious at Cape Town’s The Silo, a 28-room hotel that shares a Thomas Heatherwick-designed former grain silo with the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world, Zeitz MOCAA.
Above, Untitled (Cowboy), by Richard Prince at The Thief. Below, The Silo hotel in Cape Town housed in a former grain silo, renovated by Thomas Heatherwick. Photography: Adam Letch
The Silo’s artwork collection is curated by Liz Biden, the hotel’s owner. Like the gallery below, the emphasis is on African artists, emerging and established, but unlike it, there’s no ticket charge – save the price of a room or simply a cocktail at the bar; a democratic combination of travel and culture. Visitors can even scoot across town, where the 13-room Ellerman House wows with not only its views but an art collection that explores the social and cultural shifts in South Africa from the 19th century to the present day.
‘Until recently, there were only a handful of hotels that had credible collections,’ says Liran Wizman, founder of the Sircle Collection, which includes the Sir and Max Brown hotel brands. ‘Now it’s becoming an aspect of the early stages of planning. In our case, art is as important as the furniture. Indeed, with hotels you can see in the most successful examples that it’s a consideration from the outset, rather than an afterthought.’
Must be Rain (above) and So Exotic (below) by Jody Paulsen in the lobby of The Silo. Photography: Adam Letch
This was certainly the case at Australia’s Jackalope – on the Mornington Peninsula an hour’s drive from Melbourne – where works by the likes of Emily Floyd and Kate Robertson feel woven into the fabric of the Carr-designed property, each piece commissioned by owner Louis Li. He describes artwork as a ‘conceptual layer’ and, for his next Jackalope, slated to open in Melbourne’s CBD in 2023, he has already purchased Rain Room – an immersive piece by Random International that went on early exhibition in the city, attracting over 85,000 visitors.
At Lima’s Hotel B, meanwhile, Art Tours are part of the 17-room hotel’s offer, giving guests an opportunity to learn more about a vibrant collection composed of pieces by mainly Peruvian and Latin American artists – José Tola, Heraldo Higa and Aldo Chaparro among them; It’s bijou art store, then, a place to purchase many of the works.
That lobbies and guestrooms have become some of the most intriguing places to peruse art is testament to the nebulous, shifting character of hotels writ large. And just as restaurants with rooms reflected our appetites for food-centric experiences, so galleries with rooms could reflect our desire for cultural ones – the art of travel now within hotels as well as without. §
The seven-metre jackalope sculpture by Emily Floyd, at the entrance of Jackalope hotel
The giant marble head by Jaume Plensa at Stockholm’s At Six hotel
Elma Arts Complex Luxury Hotel, Zichron Ya’akov, Israel
Agate faced busts by Andrew Hazewinkel at Jackalope hotel
Custom-made lighting installation by Studio Ongarato at Jackalope Hotel
After Hours (left) and An Evening In (right) by Stephen Baker, at Puro Gdansk
Annie Leibovitz on the legacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson
Leibovitz was one of five artists and collectors asked by Palazzo Grassi to reinvent the French photojournalist’s ‘Master Collection’ of 385 images
Installation view of Annie Leibovitz’s curated section of ‘Le Grand Jeu’ at Palazzo Grassi, Venice. For the exhibtion, Leibovitz was asked to select and curate 50 images from the photojournalist’s ‘Master Collection’ of 385 works
Leibovitz remembers, as a young painting student at the San Francisco Art Institute, studying one of the iconic photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson’s most famous images. The now illustrious American portrait photographer found the image in the university’s library, in a newly published book titled The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
A member of the French army during the Second World War, Cartier-Bresson escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1943 and joined a French underground photographic unit, covering the liberation of France and the retreat of the German army. In the spring of 1945, he found himself photographing a displaced persons camp in Dessau, Germany, between the American and Soviet zones. ‘The photograph shows the moment when a Gestapo informant is confronted by a woman she betrayed,’ Leibovitz writes. ‘The informant is humiliated, the betrayed woman in a rage and about to strike a blow, the spectators in thrall at the scene – all conveyed with great simplicity.’
In the catalogue of a new exhibition ‘Le Grand Jeu’, on show now at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Leibovitz says: ‘Seeing Cartier-Bresson’s work made me want to become a photographer. The idea that a photographer could travel with a camera to different places, see how other people lived, make looking a mission — that that could be your life was an amazing, thrilling idea.’
The exhibition’s title ‘Le Grand Jeu’ is a reference to the group of photographs that Cartier-Bresson, the man now best known for coining the term ‘the decisive moment’, considered to be his ‘Master Collection’. The selection was made in 1972, in Houston, in the home of the renowned photography collectors John and Dominique de Menil.
When Cartier-Bresson stayed with them one summer, they asked the French photographer to compile his selection. Almost 50 years later, the 385 photographs he chose for the de Menils have been gathered at Palazzo Grassi, in an exhibition born of a partnership between the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, the Pinault Collection and the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson.But, as a way of providing an additional element of curation to Cartier-Bresson’s selection, the exhibition’s overall curator,
Matthieu Humery, invited five co-curators to provide their response to Cartier-Bresson’s work. Annie Leibovitz was one of those curators, alongside art historian Sylvie Aubenas, writer Javier Cercas, collector François Pinault and film director Wim Wenders. Each had to follow a basic rule; they were to choose 50 images from amongst the 385. Beyond that, they were given free reign to do whatever they liked with the sequencing and editing of Cartier-Bresson’s work.
‘You can see the way Cartier-Bresson composed. How he found a situation that he liked and then waited for something to happen within it’
To contend with the task, Leibovitz first pinned all the photographs, which she had printed the size of index cards, in rows on a wall of her studio. She then picked out the pictures that had a strong influence on her work and remained etched on her mind from her time as a student. ‘Some of the photographs I chose are hard to look at. Some of them are important, famous pictures because of their subjects,’ Leibovitz says.
‘You can see the way Cartier-Bresson composed. How he found a situation that he liked and then waited for something to happen within it. How there is something going on in the foreground and something else in the background or in another part of the scene. It’s almost the way your eye sees. Something is happening in front of you, and something else is happening farther off. It’s interesting to see what he does over and over again.’
Installation view of Annie Leibovitz’s curated section in ‘Le Grand Jeu’ at Palazzo Grassi, Venice
Leibovitz met Cartier-Bresson once, in 1976, when she was a young photographer at Rolling Stone. Jann Wenner, the magazine’s editor, asked her to work on a special issue of the magazine, in which she would make a series of portraits of other photographers. Included were Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Helmut Newton and Ansel Adams.
Leibovitz wrote a letter to Cartier-Bresson at his home in Paris and got no response. ‘So I made a pilgrimage to Paris to find him. I didn’t have an appointment. I just went to the Magnum office and he happened to be there,’ she says. Leibovitz walked home with Cartier-Bresson before having lunch at his house. ‘But he continued to refuse to let me photograph him or interview him,’ she says.
‘I made a pilgrimage to Paris to find him. I didn’t have an appointment. I just went to the Magnum office and he happened to be there. But he continued to refuse to let me photograph him or interview him’
Leibovitz left without a portrait, and had a sleepless night. Early the next morning, she went back to a footbridge they had walked over the day before. ‘It was on his way to Magnum, and I thought that maybe he would come there again,’ she says. ‘It was neutral territory.’ After an hour, Cartier-Bresson appeared on the street, and Leibovitz started taking pictures without him being aware of her presence.
‘When he realised that the person taking photographs was me, he started yelling,’ Leibovitz remembers. ‘I didn’t understand everything he said, because I was concentrating on the pictures, but the gist was that I had betrayed him,’ Leibovitz says.
‘He composed himself, and we walked together to the Magnum office. Along the way he explained that he didn’t want to be photographed because he felt that he wouldn’t be able to do his work on the street if people knew what he looked like,’ Leibovitz says. ‘They would behave differently if they knew he was taking their picture. This is something I only understand now.’ §
Palazzo Grassi presents ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson. Le Grand Jeu’, co-organised with the Bibliothèque nationale de France and in partnership with the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Based on a project conceived and coordinated by Matthieu Humery, the exhibition looks at how the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004) is viewed by five different curators, focusing particularly on the ‘Master Collection’, a selection of 385 images that the artist himself chose in the early 1970s, upon the request of his friends and collectors Jean and Dominique de Menil, as the most significant of his work. Today there are five copies of this extraordinary set.
Photographer Annie Leibovitz, film director Wim Wenders, writer Javier Cercas, the General Conservator and Director of the Prints and Photography Department of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Sylvie Aubenas, and collector François Pinault have been invited to select fifty works each from the original ‘Master Collection’.
Through their selection, each curator shares his or her vision of this major artist’s photography and work. The scope of this unique project is thus to renew and enrich our view on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work through the respective ones of five personalities.
The exhibition ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson. Le Grand Jeu’ will be presented at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in Paris, in spring 2021.