Artist-in-Residence Programs Put Art at Hospitality’s Forefront

"I was a little bit scared that people would think I’m selling out,” says W Los Angeles artist-in-residence Mary Lai. “But then I thought of people like Andy Warhol, who mixed the commercial with the conceptual."

When checking into the W Los Angeles – West Beverly Hills, guests are presented with two choices: the real entrance and a colorful, sculptural Alice in Wonderland-style portal erected by artist Mary Lai. Inside, there are more pieces by Lai, a multimedia artist who has shown her work at Art Basel and spoken at SXSW, including digital murals, collages and sculptures in the lobby and the rooms. Each piece is accompanied by a scannable QR code that lets hotel guests learn more or even purchase the pieces. This is Unlock Your Dreams, Lai’s biggest solo exhibition to date, which also happens to be the centerpiece of the hotel’s artist-in-residence program.


Which hotels have jumped on the artist-in-residence trend?

Not so long ago, hotel art used to be the visual equivalent of elevator music—a background feature meant to soothe and distract rather than inspire. But a new crop of art hotel initiatives is mixing things up by putting art at hospitality’s forefront; recently, artists in residence have been announced at the historic Pfister and the artsy Saint Kate in Milwaukee, at renowned L.A. properties like the Peninsula and Hotel Figueroa, at big-name franchises like the Park Hyatt in NYC and at smaller, boutique properties like the Cuyama Buckhorn in southern California, MacArthur Place in Sonoma and the White Elephant in Nantucket.

Abroad, high-end hotels are joining the trend by taking even bigger swings at the concept. The Peninsula in Tokyo just launched its residency program, starting with the Leonardo DiCaprio-approved artist Domingo Zapata, who had set up a temporary studio on the premises —special paintings have been created there specifically to be displayed at the hotel. In 2021, the high-end Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts brand partnered with the international Galleria Continua, debuting Anish Kapoor at the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah in Dubai, and is now showcasing Pascale Marthine Tayou at the Capri Palace Jumeirah hotel.

In Europe, London’s 45 Park Lane, an elegant property on the edge of Hyde Park, announced a residency earlier this year; every six months, a new artist is invited to display their work. The program started with the London-based collage artist Hormazd Narielwalla, and recently switched to color and shape maven Jo Hummel, whose work has been exhibited at the Saatchi gallery – her geometric and colorful paintings accentuate the hotel bar.

The ins and outs of hotel artist residencies

The trend sounds as exhilarating as it is complex. Unlike the traditional art residency route, which involves foundations, grants, museums and nonprofits, and offers artists time and space to create and reflect, a hotel “residency” takes on a simpler format, with a more intricate set of interests and motivations. It’s mutually beneficial—more eyeballs and foot traffic for the artist, great publicity and a creative aura for the hotel. This type of collaboration raises interesting questions about prestige, public perception and the choices artists face in these cynical, fast-changing times.

“I think exposure is important and everything helps,” says Domingo Zapata of his expertise at the Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo. In practice, the hotel art residency oftentimes looks like this; a certain property allows the chosen artist a chance to display their work in a highly visible, unorthodox way, for a certain period of time, be it a gallery space in the lobby or a selection of works across the hotel’s rooms and public spaces. Occasionally—as in Zpata’s case—creating a studio space on the premises for the artist to work in brings the hotel residency closer to its original structure. While working elsewhere than his regular studio was difficult, the residency, according to Zapata, was beneficial because “you are out of your comfort zone and you get to experiment with other cultures and meet people from all over the world.”

In terms of additional avenues for collaboration, these partnerships offer guests ways to interact with the artist via workshops, experiences or dedicated a suite or series of rooms to the artist’s work. Take for example the new Gray Malin suite at the historic Hotel Del in San Diego, with its new series of photos created specifically for the hotel. The corner suite is meant to emulate the photographer’s famous sense of wanderlust.

Similar to Zapat’s arrangement, at Saint Kate in Milwaukee, guests have been able to view local artist Jeff Zimpel working in his on-site studio since September of 2022, as part of the hotel’s new artist-in-residency program. In Phoenix, AZ, the Kimpton Hotel Palomar announced a new pop-up art space, ARTLAB, in 2018, and invited artists to apply for a short-term residency. The ask is a minimum of four hours, four days per week, of working from the space for eight to twelve weeks.

At L.A.’s Hotel Figueroa, the annual Featured Artist Series offers a little bit of everything, capturing some of the possibilities. Announced in March of 2023, the hotel’s year-long collaboration with painter Erica Everage consists of an exhibition held at the hotel’s gallery space and an immersive Featured Artist Suite outfitted with many of her works.

A woman stands near a window in a hotel room with many paintings
Painter Erica Everage’s work is on view at L.A.’s Hotel Figueroa. Courtesy Hotel Figueroa

Everage, who graduated with an MFA in Fine Art from Otis College of Art and Design this past May, was chosen, in part, for the way her work celebrates female bodies. “The hotel’s marketing team works closely in tandem with our longstanding PR agency, Modern Currency, to vet and hand-select deserving female artists who are aligned with the hotel’s history and vision of supporting women in the arts and creative fields,” Connie Wang, Managing Director, told Observer.

The invitation to showcase at Hotel Figueroa, says Everage, “felt like kismet, and an honor,” given the hotel’s history—Hotel Figueroa used to be a safe haven for solo female travelers when it originally opened in 1926—and the timing of the launch, which coincided with Women’s History Month.

From art fairs to NFTs, the convergence of art and commerce has always been fertile with opportunity, if a little fraught. Some might claim that the current trend is partially geared towards reinvigorating the post-pandemic hotel as a happening hub tapped into culture and community. And yet, according to Hotel Figueroa’s management, it’s more than a PR stunt. “The goal is to support and bring new visibility to incredibly talented artists by offering our hotel venue as a platform and ‘art gallery’ of sorts, that sees so much traffic and visitation each week,” says Wang.

Everage adds: “You get different kinds of crowds, not just the local gallery crowd.” Since the exhibition opened in March, the artist has sold two pieces, “and there’s more interest.”  She definitely recommends this route to emerging artists: “It’s a huge platform to be given,” she says. “It’s opening many doors for me already.”

For Lai, who took over the W Los Angeles, the offer was an easy yes. “The difference between a gallery or an art fair and this is that the hotel has about 10,000 guests come through in a month, so you’re getting a lot of eyes on your work constantly.” The convenience is hard to beat. “The hotel almost acts like my personal showroom now,” says Lai, adding that she has taken meetings with collectors, gallerists and buyers at the space.

An art gallery in a hotel
Mary Lai’s work at the W Los Angeles. BIRDMAN PHOTOS

Lai also enjoyed a particularly decadent launch event of the sort few artists get, thanks to the hotel’s generous budget; “validated parking, DJ, open bar—everyone said they had the best time,” she says. Within a month and a half since opening, Lai sold four pieces. The hotel had her give the staff a private art tour to equip them with the right information and tools to sell the artwork to guests. A small commission from each sale incentivizes the staff further.

Against the benefits, however, lurks anxiety as arguably antiquated as it is still prevalent in the art world. “I was a little bit scared that people would think I’m selling out,” says Lai. “But then I thought of people like Andy Warhol, who mixed the commercial with the conceptual. It’s important to have that mix.” For a hotel, she says, the artwork did have to be “more universally likeable, maybe more sellable,” but being able to innovate with this project—creating a digital gallery and using AR—made Lai feel like she’s still pushing boundaries. “I want to create a name for my art and show that I can do both commercial and highly conceptual projects,” she says. “I feel strongly that this was the right decision for me and that the work was coming from an authentic artistic place.”

Artist-in-Residence Programs Put Art at Hospitality’s Forefront