Terry O’Neill Lives On in Palm Beach as Five-Star Hotel Art Ups the Ante

Some hotels court guests with a comfy bed and a nice view. Others keep them coming back with unforgettable experiences and incredible artwork.

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Photographer Terry O’Neill with his portrait of Amy Winehouse. Photo by Stuart Wilson/Getty Images

From a distance, I hear it again: “Nice yacht!” Looking out on the warm waters of Lake Worth Lagoon—the narrow strait that separates Palm Beach proper from West Palm Beach—I see fellow boaters marveling at us, and I don’t blame them. We’re an aspirational sight, sipping champagne and nibbling treats from the cheese board on a $1,200,000 vessel during our sun-soaked two-hour tour. I have the sudden urge to check up on my stocks and bonds; just as suddenly, I remember I have neither.

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I’m cruising today as a guest of The Brazilian Court Hotel. A glitzy staple for nearly a century, the acclaimed Palm Beach luxury hotel recently rolled out this yachting adventure, and I’m lucky to be among the first to enjoy it.

Some hotels court guests with luxe toiletries. The Brazilian Court tempts guests with the BC One, a 44-foot Brunello Acampora-designed Italian Solaris Power Yacht. “How was your ride?” the buoyant front desk clerk asks me upon my return to dry land, and she seems sincerely eager to hear about my experience. “It was top-tier,” I recall saying, having never before uttered a similar sentence sans irony. It’s that earnest hospitality, along with the unforgettable experiences, that repeat guests of the hotel have come to expect—perhaps unsurprisingly. With so much competition, properties need to pull out all the stops.

A hotel room with a black and white artistic portrait hanging on the wall
The black-and-white celebrity portraits stand out without overshadowing the decor. Bronwyn Knight

“It’s about building a special experience,” Bobby Schlesinger, who runs the century-old Brazilian Court with his wife, Courtney, told Observer. That experience includes everything from the yacht tours to the Palm Beach outpost of Chef Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud to the concierge service available around the clock. It also encompasses the carefully curated art on the walls.

Relaxing in my room, I gaze upward and see Dean Martin, breaking through curtains, staring back at me. It’s not dissimilar to other striking portraits I’ve seen around the property: chic black-and-white photos that one can’t help but notice.

It used to be that hotels, however luxurious, would hang pretty much anything on the walls, provided it was inoffensive, relatively neutral and geographically appropriate. I remember visiting Vegas and seeing overblown shots of the Sunset Strip in every one of my hotel rooms—so touristy as to look like poster-size postcards. Ditto for beachside hotel prints of Hokusai’s Great Wave and ski resorts with pictures of moose.

A hotel room with a black and white artistic portrait hanging on the wall
A Terry O’Neill print at The Brazilian Court Hotel. Bronwyn Knight

“Historically artwork in hotels has not just been an afterthought, it’s been laughable,” Schlesinger told me. “Just look at the sites and social media pages dedicated to how bad hotel art has been over the years.”

When he thought about elevating the art at The Brazilian Court, he had two personalities in mind. The first was internationally renowned photographer Nathan Coe, whose oeuvre encompasses landscapes and nudes and—full disclosure—is a friend of Schlesinger. “He’s quintessentially Palm Beach, but a new and sexy version of Palm Beach, which is something we’re trying to bring across in both our look and feel,” he said. “We trust the artist to know what his best pieces are and what he’s most proud to show off.”

But what I’d been seeing was the work of the late British photographer Terry O’Neill—legendary for his astute depictions of old Hollywood. His list of subjects runs the gamut of film, music and fashion VIPs: Judy Garland, The Beatles, Faye Dunaway, David Bowie and more recently Amy Winehouse. If you think you’re not familiar with O’Neill’s work, let me assure you that you actually are (think Elton John in that iconic skin-tight sequined baseball uniform). His photographs are widely collected and exhibited.

A hotel room with a black and white artistic portrait hanging on the wall
Terry O’Neill prints elevate the decor at The Brazilian Court. Bronwyn Knight

Featuring his work felt right: “Terry captures this old show business mystique the hotel has embodied since opening in the 1920s and playing host to many celebrities, dignitaries, artists and musicians throughout the years.” But it was important to the brand that The Brazilian Court obtained an exclusive license to exhibit O’Neill’s work. His images, Schlesinger explained, tow a delicate line. “They’re fun, they’re playful and they’re also serious art.”

These days, if you’re a five-star hotel and you don’t have a highly curated selection of artwork or an artist-in-residence program, what are you even doing? Earlier this summer while visiting Capri’s iconic Hotel Caesar Augustus, which overlooks the sparkling waters of the Adriatic, the original artwork enhanced my experience basking in the Mediterranean sun with an aperitivo in hand. Another privately-run property—this one by the Signorini family—has lush natural surroundings complemented by stunning sculptures, including one of the eponymous ruler that sits on its sunny terrace. It was placed there by its original owner, Russian Prince Emmanual Bulhak, who was a trailblazer when it came to envisioning the humble hotel as a centerpiece for art and culture in the early 20th Century.

But whether or not you agree that Bulhak was a trailblazer, the idea of hotels showcasing great art has lately become a global trend in hospitality, from The Carlyle Hotel employing the artist Ludwig Bemelmans to paint the walls of its eponymous bar to the Bellagio over in Las Vegas becoming a de facto museum for Dale Chihuly’s colorful compositions of blown glass.

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Or even the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club in beautiful Bermuda. “We’re all about creating memories with unforgettable service and experiences by engaging our visitors,” says Diarmaid O'Sullivan, director of sales and marketing. “Our art collection is a key part of our identity in delivering that engagement.”

That particular resort isn’t kidding around, with original pieces by a roster of artists that reads like a Who’s Who of the most indelible names of all time: Warhol and Picasso, Henri Matisse, Rene Magritte, Roy Lichtenstein, Yayoi Kusama. There’s even an original Banksy in with the Hockneys and the Koons. “Incredible works from some of the most iconic modern and pop artists can be found in our rooms, common spaces, down each hallway, throughout our incredible restaurants, and even outside,” O’Sullivan told Observer.

Sometimes this penchant for show-stopping, eye-popping art is the purview of the developers of the properties versus the hoteliers. On the other side of the world, The Grand Wailea in Maui boasts the largest collection of Fernando Botero sculptures outside the artist’s homeland of Colombia. Takeshi Sekiguchi, the resort’s original developer, was an avid collector, and each of the Botero pieces serves as a pillar of the hotel’s design.

“The investment in thought-provoking, museum-worthy art elevates and inspires visitors within a space, and can serve as a greater draw to a hotel,” JP Oliver, the area managing director of Grand Wailea, said. To that end, the property took great pains to import them. One two-ton piece—Woman Smoking a Cigarette—was lowered onto the island by helicopter. Oliver pointed out that “high-level decor” is something you’re much more likely to find on the walls of a hotel than a rental property.

And it’s true. Why rent an AirBnB with a Live~Laugh~Love poster tacked up on the wall when I can gaze up at a limited-edition Terry O’Neill print of an effervescent Jacqueline Bisset toasting me with a bottle of champagne? “My favorite shot here is probably of Jean Shrimpton,” said Schlesinger, back in Palm Beach. “There’s one of her lying on top of a horse. It’s a large horizontal piece found over the sofas in our suites. When you see it, the horse immediately catches your eye. And you ponder it for a second. What am I looking at?”

Terry O’Neill Lives On in Palm Beach as Five-Star Hotel Art Ups the Ante