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When hotels turn into galleries for fine art

Many hotels now have curation teams which integrate the best of modern art seamlessly into the décor

The Postcard Dewa in Thimphu, Bhutan
The Postcard Dewa in Thimphu, Bhutan

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At The Postcard Hotel, a five-year-old luxury boutique brand started by hotelier and art collector Kapil Chopra in locations such as Goa, Gir (Gujarat) and Bhutan, art is an important part of the overall hospitality experience. Guests can soak in works created by contemporary and local artists that are often reflective of the destination. Its property in Moira, Goa, for instance, showcases monochrome and colour pictures of churches, temples and abundant greenery by designer J.J. Valaya, while another property has artist Sumantra Mukherjee painting larger-than-life works inspired by homegrown icon F. N. Souza.

In Kochi, Kerala, the space boasts of a “living-in-art galleries” experience. As part of this, artist Bose Krishnamachari—a co-founder of the Kochi Biennale Foundation—and five other contemporary artists have transformed rooms with artwork and sculptural installations, lending them the feel of an art gallery.

Some of the older hotel groups, such as the ITC and Taj (Indian Hotels Co. Ltd, or IHCL), brought curation into sharp focus in the 1960s-70s with specially curated works by modern masters such as Krishen Khanna, Satish Gujral and M. F. Husain. At most hotels, though, art continued to be mere embellishment, with the works on display in the rooms being dissonant with the destination’s culture. That has changed, with hotel chains such as The Postcard Hotel and W trying to bring the best of modern and contemporary art to the guest through dedicated art curation teams.

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According to Mandeep S. Lamba, HVS (hospitality valuation services) ANAROCK president of South Asia, which hosted the H.O.P.E. (Hospitality Overview Presentation and Exchange) conference earlier this month in Goa, art in hotels is a celebration of a community. It allows for a greater understanding of the culture of a destination. The covid-19 pandemic brought the healing power of art and creativity up front and centre, says Lamba. No surprise then that hotels have understood that such an integration allows for a deeper, perhaps more engaging conversation with—and from— guests.

The W Hotels have been associated with French painter Lucas Beaufort since 2018. At the Goa property, he painted Bouloubilligoula, a fascinating work that runs along the hotel staircase. His latest work, Bluish And Ginger Bell, is an ode to Goa’s waters, with the colour palette reflecting the destination’s overall look and feel.

Hotels are now also offering a platform to local artists, who are able to add a layer of depth to a guest’s engagement with a destination. Iconic brands such as ITC, IHCL, the Oberoi and Grand Hyatt have not just commissioned local artists but also organise regular live demonstrations at their properties. At the Oberoi Vanyavilas in Ranthambore, Rajasthan, for instance, artist M.D. Parashar demonstrates his technique of creating the famous soot paintings of tigers.

Brij Hotels, which entered the hospitality industry during the pandemic with the 210-year-old heritage property BrijRama Palace in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, believes in going beyond just paintings. Udit Kumar, co-founder, commissions local artists to hand-paint ceilings, wardrobe hangers, room lockers and more. Traditional techniques such as usta (miniature painting in gold and other bright colours on camel hide, walls and other surfaces) and thikri (glass and stone inlay work) are revived and celebrated. But what clearly defines the brand’s intent as an “art-forward” hotel is its annual art fair, in which select contemporary artists participate in a residency to create art that goes on the walls. One such work can be seen at the hotel’s Jaipur property—a life-sized sculpture of an owl made of scrap metal.

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Art curation at hotels is not a one-time effort. At The Postcard Hotel and Resorts, for instance, the art research team regularly scouts for talent, commissioning work reflective of the hotel’s ethos. With plans to open 100 hotels in the next five years, Chopra hopes to translate them into “100 art museums to promote contemporary art”. One such forthcoming property in Netravali, Goa, will feature an outdoor sculpture park, confirms Chopra.

According to curator and critic Uma Nair, “curation in a hotel takes time to build and look after”, and only very few chains, such as ITC and Taj, reflect a “curatorial historicity and a seriousness of purpose and intent in collecting”.

ITC Maurya in Delhi was a trendsetter, commissioning Krishen Khanna for what’s now considered one of the most iconic murals in 20th century Indian modern art. Walk into the impressive lobby and it’s impossible not to meditate on the modern master’s The Great Procession, an ode to Mauryan history, Buddhism, and contemporary times. Commissioned in 1979 by the hotel, where he was appointed an art consultant, the work on the dome of the lobby took four years.

ITC Maurya alone has over 400 works by Indian modern masters. Anil Chadha, divisional chief executive, ITC Hotels, says: “Rooted in the ethos of the region, each ITC hotel has a distinct identity, bringing alive facets of the destination through architecture, design, weaves, artefacts and art. Besides the art installations at the hotel, we also hold art camps, supporting upcoming regional artists.” The artwork at ITC Maurya, then, gets interwoven into the brand’s ethos of nurturing India’s cultural heritage.

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‘The Great Procession’ by Krishen Khanna at ITC Maurya, Delhi
‘The Great Procession’ by Krishen Khanna at ITC Maurya, Delhi

Under the aegis of WelcomArt, ITC Hotels’ pan-India Responsible Luxury initiative to promote Indian art and artists through public spaces in its hotels, the representation of Indian modern masters and contemporary artists is par excellence—one can see Akbar Padamsee’s paintings from his famous Metascape series, Satish Gujral’s sculptures in burnt wood, Tyeb Mehta’s Diagonal series, Husain’s iconic horses and Meera Mukherjee’s critically acclaimed Ashoka At Kalinga, among several others.

The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, too continues to host exhibitions of modernists and contemporary artists. It’s worth noting that DAG, a leading art gallery that focuses on 18th to 20th century Indian art, has its gallery in the hotel’s premises. The art collection of Taj Mahal Palace, which has been handled by Chatterjee & Lal since 2006, includes iconic works such as Husain’s triptych, Three Stanzas For The Millennium. Additionally, the hotel also loans works to museums all over the world, signifying how integral art is to the hotel’s ethos.

According to Arvind Vijay Mohan, chief executive of Artery India, an art asset advisory, and founder of Indian Art Investor, it is “by virtue of leadership and ownership that forward-thinking hotels see value in art not just by commissioning artists but also purchasing artworks”.

Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based writer.

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