For hotels, pampering is a fine art

When Thompson's Lower East Side hotel opens in Manhattan in March, it will include work by artist and poet Gerard Malanga, Warhol's longtime collaborator. Malanga is going to install a blown-up photographic image of Warhol at the bottom of the swimming pool that guests will be able to see from higher floors. "It should be very dramatic," Brandman says.

In Louisville, the success of the Wilsons' 21c Hotel — with its destination restaurant, a 9,000-square-foot contemporary art museum run by their foundation and expansive art collection — has convinced them there's a bigger market.

So the couple are working on opening a second hotel in Austin, and they're considering invitations from other cities. Steve Wilson says they may open about a dozen art-filled hotels in downtown areas of midsize cities.

Las Vegas for years has included expensive art in its glitziest hotels.

When billionaire Steve Wynn opened the Bellagio in 1998, it contained priceless masterpieces by Degas, Picasso, Monet, Manet and others. Under new ownership, the hotel now puts on revolving art exhibits and displays works by Picasso in its Picasso restaurant.

But in cities where sensory overload presents less risk, the inclusion of fine art in hotels seems to stand out more.

Picking up where Vegas left off

Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson says the 21c is sparking interest around the world, and it is boosting Louisville's profile as its downtown area undergoes a massive makeover with lofts, condominiums and new towers.

"It creates a buzz," Abramson says. Visitors "walk away with a feeling that Louisville's becoming much more of an edgy community than what they'd originally perceived."

At 21c, Wilson says, he has sought to balance serious, provocative works with whimsical works. The Wilsons don't want theirs to become one of those boutique hotels that "can get so cool, they're almost inhospitable," he says.

Sondland, the Seattle hotel developer, tends to feature works of local artists in his Provenance chain, which includes Hotel Preston in Nashville and Hotel Max in Seattle. He's building the Murano, home of the glass ships, in a converted Sheraton built in the 1980s.

"We're trying to give travelers the ability to roam the building and nurture their souls," says Sondland, who's been investing in hotels for more than two decades —and collecting art longer. But good art also is good business.

Says Sondland: "There are a lot of competitors who do as good a job as we do, but we have a distinguishing feature" that attracts customers.

For some travelers, however, the next morning's business meetings are more important than the original canvas hanging in their rooms.

"I'd trade a memory-foam mattress for a glimpse of an original Warhol any day," says Michael Shannon, a consultant based in Woodbridge, Va. "Free, reliable, fast Wi-Fi is much more relevant to my hotel decision-making process. Art in hotels is a worry for people who don't have enough to do in their day job."

For now, travelers who do want to wake up near original art must stay in swanky, luxury hotels or one of the growing number of boutique hotels. Rates vary. Rates at the 21c Museum Hotel, for instance, start at about $210 per night, while the highest room rates at the Provenance chain's Hotel Lucia in Portland can top $700 per night. When Thompson Lower East Side opens, the least expensive room will cost $425 a night.

But that may be changing.

Local is where it's at

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