For hotels, pampering is a fine art

No time for the local museum on an overnight trip? Try lingering at your hotel.

A new breed of hotels is dressing up walls, lobbies and guest rooms with original artworks from a mix of famous, midcareer and promising artists. Instead of hanging bland or factory-produced art that blends in with the background, they're choosing memorable — and in many cases, very expensive — works. A growing number of hoteliers think that art can help them create an experience that will draw more travelers.

Cities as varied as New York, Nashville and Tacoma, Wash., now boast of hotels in which the fine art is so fine that they could almost double as museums.

Louisville, for instance, has the 91-room 21c Museum Hotel, opened two years ago by developer Steve Wilson and his wife, Laura Lee Brown,to showcase some of their $10 million contemporary art collection. It includes Text Rain, an interactive video installation by conceptual artists Camille Utterback, an American, and Romy Achituv, an Israeli.

Investor Gordon Sondland of Seattle is working on his sixth art-themed hotel, the Hotel Murano, which is in Tacoma. Last month, Danish artist Vibeke Skov flew to the hotel to install three colored glass Viking ships ranging in length from 12 to 16 feet. The ships hang from the four-story atrium corridor.

Over the last four years, as travel has rebounded from a post 9/11 slump, the industry has spent billions renovating hotels' interiors and technology offerings to raise their hipness quotient. Bigger competitors have watched small boutique chains such as Ian Schrager, Kimpton and Thompson carve out a niche with unique art and design.

Stephen Brandman, co-owner of Thompson Hotels, a chain of six luxury boutique hotels where rooms can cost more than $800 a night, says inclusion of fine art is important to demonstrate "a thought process that's been put into every element" of the hotel.

"No longer is the traveler just looking for a clean bed and a free cup of coffee in the morning," Brandman says.

Depending on the hotel's collection and budget, guests may find art dispersed throughout a hotel, from elevator areas to expansive lobby walls. Sonesta hotels showcase at least two original works in guest rooms. Guests, for example, could sleep near pieces by artists such as photographer Robert Maplethorpe and abstract painter Robert Mangold.

For hoteliers, original artworks can distinguish a hotel from rivals and create the type of atmosphere that well-traveled, discriminating guests have come to expect. For travelers, art offers a richer experience during their stay.

The new emphasis on original art comes as the hotel industry continues trying to appeal to Generation Xers — ages 27 to 43 — who tend to have disposable income and who seek uniqueness rather than cookie-cutter predictability.

Josh Short, 31, and his wife Tiffany Sauls, 33, of Lexington, Ky., normally stay at bed-and-breakfast inns because "hotels don't interest us." But after reading about 21c's collection and restaurant, the couple decided to drive about 90 minutes to Louisville to see what's behind the buzz.

"The fact that they had a hotel, a modern art gallery and a restaurant all in one place intrigued us," says Short, an emergency room physician.

Short gave the hotel a rave review. He especially liked a life-size red, plastic penguin from 21c's collection with a congratulatory note about a recent professional accomplishment by Sauls, who is a child psychiatrist.

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