Here’s How Hospitality Art Consultants Create and Curate the Art in Asia’s Best Hotels

From grande dame Siam Kempinski to the new Hotel Royal Hoi An, the best hotels today use their walls as portals to culture, cultivate soul, and give you reason to feel.

By Laurel Tuohy

Jan 8, 2021

EVER WONDER HOW THAT UNUSUAL ABSTRACT PAINTING in your hotel room came to be there? Or the otherworldly sculpture in the center of the lobby? Most likely, there was a hotel art consultant involved.

These behind-the-scenes insiders are, increasingly often, helping to shape the high-end hotel experience. We spoke to two hotel art consultants—one who matches artists with hotel projects and another who creates original pieces for hotels—about how they got into the field and how they are sculpting the modern luxury hotel experience.

Shann Whitaker

Kiwi, based in Vietnam

Shann Whitaker is the founder of Hay Hay Hotel Art Supplier, a Danang-based art consultancy firm that designs, creates and installs artwork for five-star hospitality projects such as Mai House Saigon, Hilton Danang, and Crowne Plaza Vientiane.

Before entering the field, Whitaker, a New Zealander, was running a gallery in Hoi An and was approached by the owner of the then not-yet-opened Hotel Royal Hoi An MGallery Collection to design its artwork. He got a brief, impressed the Accor design team, and it soon became a new business.

The traditional hotel art ethos—hang an uninspired landscape or dubious abstract specifically chosen not to draw attention, and call it a day—has, in the world’s best hotels, given way to a more groundbreaking approach. They often work with a specialist to incorporate art in a meaningful way, creating opportunities to start conversations or introduce facets of local culture to guests.

“You can see the difference between a three- or four-star hotel—where they bought the artwork from a local gallery based on size or color,” Whitaker says, “compared with a hotel hanging artwork created specifically for that space.”

Still, there are definitive boundaries for most hotel projects; they’re in the business of being welcoming to guests, after all. Lines that can’t be crossed—from nudity to politics and beyond—create an interesting dichotomy for the designer since, in most people’s perspectives, good art should invite questions, court controversy and make a viewer think. “In a hotel setting, abstract art is always popular because, other than someone not liking the artwork aesthetically, you can’t really offend them,” Whitaker says. 

Among his most thorny projects has been an eight-meter-wide metal mobile for Ibis Styles Vung Tau. After crafting hundreds of perspex fish to hang from four huge metal rings attached to the ceiling, he visited the new site to learn that the space had no roof, only a 14-floor rise to a glass ceiling: “Obviously we had to quickly adjust our design and suspend the mobile from the sidewalls, which created a big challenge.”

But his favorite project has been the Pullman Hotel Danang. “We created artwork for all areas of the hotel over a three-year period. Most of what we created had a nautical theme but each area of the hotel was different. Throughout the project we used a lot of different techniques: acrylic, resin, metal and wood sculpture, weaving, ceramic and digital canvas. It is a sprawling property and I love the way the artwork accentuates the different areas as you wander around. The beach bar was particularly fun to do. With a very white color scheme we were able to create some colorful eye popping artwork.”

Eric Monteil

French, based in Vietnam

Eric Monteil, a longtime art lover, came into hospitality art consulting from a business perspective, founding Art Consulting Asia and then Silapix, a management platform to connect artists with public projects that needed art—like hotels.

A French national who lives in Saigon, he has worked with Le Meridien there, as well as The St. Regis Bangkok and Bangkok Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park, among other brand names. At Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok, he consulted on all 2,000 pieces of art in the city center hotel before expanding the collaboration into Siam Kempinski Art Gallery, an online gallery showcasing artists and pieces related to Siam Kempinski’s art collection and a complete description of each artwork on public display.

“Most hotel interior decoration projects commission artworks from artists rather than purchasing [existing] artworks from them,” Monteil says. “There are very few chances to source artwork that matches the specifications.” He finds artists via social media, and he manages a network of 450 emerging and mid-career artists around the region.

He prefers to start collaborating with hotels from the inception of a project, working with the interior designer, and basing his initial research on the hotel design overview, the locale and the hotel’s target market before getting approval on a concept and beginning the search for the right artists to contribute.

“Art consulting is very sensitive since art is subjective and can drive all kinds of messages,” Monteil says. “But also amazing, since we give the property its soul and uniqueness.”

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