A guest suite at The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, designed by Montréal artist Dominique Pétrin.

Travellers are seeking accommodations that offer more than just a bed and a flat-screen TV. Created as works of art, these new types of hotel stays offer immersive cultural experiences for the boldest art aficionados.

By Sienna Vittoria Lee-Coughlin

Art and travel have always gone hand-in-hand. A vacation in Athens, Greece wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Acropolis Museum; likewise, a sojourn in New York City wouldn’t feel right without seeing the new Whitney Museum of American Art. But in this day and age, innovators in hospitality are crafting hotels that are artworks in their own right.

Dr. Shelley Hornstein, a professor at York University who researches public art and architectural tourism, first noticed this trend in the ’90s when a Berlin-based collection of hotels started opening under the name of Art’otel. The hotel group was launched by a handful of art collectors who wanted to bring contemporary, post-war art into the rooms of their properties. They have since expanded to include six locations in Europe with two more coming soon.

“To move art out of muséal spaces and into hotels was kind of a revolutionary idea when it began in earnest in a commercial setting,” says Hornstein.

Take the The Walled Off Hotel, a unique and provocative pop-up art hotel in Bethlehem that uses art to make a bold, political statement. The hotel was created by the ever-elusive, anonymous graffiti artist known as Banksy, who is famous for creating politically charged street art. The hotel boasts “the worst view in the world,” as it is seated along the controversial 700-kilometre-long wall that separates Israel and Palestine. On the other side of the property is an army watch tower.

Dominique Pétrin, a 41-year-old French Canadian artist from Montreal, was asked to customize one of the guest suites at The Walled Off Hotel, and she decorated the room with printed sheets of her signature surreal, brightly-coloured, patterned wallpapers. She describes her room as “a mix”: while it appears luxurious, with lush fabrics and carpets, at the same time, security devices such as cameras and fire extinguishers are peppered throughout the décor, inviting you to relax, but reminding you to never let your guard down.

The hotel’s opening in 2017 fell on the centenary of British control of Palestine and,  as The New York Times aptly pointed out, this hotel is part of the category of artwork that is meant to “inflict discomfort.” The rooms range from budget accommodations decorated with objects sourced from an Israeli military barracks to an upper-scale Presidential suite that, according to the cheekily written website description, offers “everything a corrupt head of state would need.” The hotel’s piano bar and reception lounge are designed to be evocative of a gentleman’s club, but there are vandalized oil paintings, and a classical Greco-Roman bust chokes on tear gas fumes. Cherubs breathing from airplane oxygen masks hang from the ceiling. Security cameras that look like deer heads stare down from the walls, sledgehammers and slingshots dangling beneath them. The room has a dystopian, abandoned feel, complete with a piano that’s programmed to play itself.

This is a drastic example, to be sure, and one that most will never experience. But it’s still indicative of an overall movement. Pétrin supposes that this is the natural evolution of travel. “You know, it’s been these big chains of corporate, anonymous, boring hotels,” she muses, pointing out that, for many tourists these days, the normal won’t do. “People are seeking bolder experiences.”

The piano bar at The Walled Off Hotel
The piano bar at The Walled Off Hotel
out front of The Walled Off Hotel next to the Israeli West Bank barrier
out front of The Walled Off Hotel next to the Israeli West Bank barrier
inside A House for Essex in England by Grayson Perry
inside A House for Essex in England by Grayson Perry
exterior view of A House for Essex
exterior view of A House for Essex

Slightly tamer, but nevertheless experiential, are countless other art hotels around the globe, ranging from the exclusive, whimsical vacation home dubbed A House for Essex by Grayson Perry, to the classically Greek Mykonos Art Villas that overlook the stunning Aegean Sea and are decorated with local artwork. Similarly, perched on the facade of The Beaumont Hotel in London is a three-storey-tall steel sculpture by Antony Gormley that looks like a crouching cuboid giant. Inside the 10-metre-high sculpture is a one-bedroom suite accessed by a narrow white staircase and a contrasting black curtain. A single shuttered window at the top of the ceiling allows the visitor to completely immerse themselves in darkness.

Another group called the 21c Museum Hotels dot the southern United States, each location aiming to be a cultural centre for the community. And closer to home you will find Toronto’s Drake Hotel (a self-defined “hotbed for culture”), which employs a staff curator and hosts regular exhibitions, as well as The Gladstone Hotel, which has 37 unique rooms each designed by a different artist.

Whether it’s a hotel that hangs artwork on the walls and hosts exhibitions, a room that rests within a large-scale sculpture, or a politically charged immersive installation that doubles as a hotel, there are plenty of bold experiences out there that bring art and travel together like never before.

The only question that remains before you book your next getaway: how bold are you?

In Our Own Backyard

A partnership between Shangri-La Toronto and UK-based style expert William Banks-Blaney (a.k.a. The Vintage King) lets visitors and locals alike view iconic vintage gowns right on the hotel’s main-floor lobby. Ian Gillespie, founder of Westbank, which developed Shangri-La Toronto, wanted the common area to feel like the city’s urban living room. And thanks to this carefully curated fashion installation by a man who has dressed the likes of Amal Clooney, Rihanna, and Victoria Beckham in retro wears, it does. For TIFF 2017, the featured dresses have been refreshed (past looks include garments from McQueen, Chanel, and Poiret), so pop in to peruse the latest.

Unexpected Art Town

Las Vegas is known for its casinos, on-stage performances (ahem), and grand hotels. And yet its art scene is often overlooked. Consider these three must-see cultural spots next time you’re in Sin City.

A 35-foot-tall flame-throwing praying mantis straight out of Burning Man in front of Container Park on Fremont Street.

The first-ever permanent Georges Rousse installation inside Starbucks at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

James Turrell’s Akhob installation tucked inside the Louis Vuitton boutique at Shops at Crystals.