I Stayed at an "Art Hotel"

11/06/2013 9:30 AM |

gladstone hotel toronto snapshot room art

Being an art critic means getting to travel; it’s a nice perk. While in Toronto a few weeks back for an art fair, I was put up at the Gladstone, an “art hotel.” All 37 rooms in the ornate, woody 19th-century hotel have been designed by local artists; these include the “Biker,” “Canadiana,” and “Teen Queen” rooms. There’re artworks lining the lobby, stairwells, and each of the hotel’s four floors; all are accessible to the public. Now, I like art and all, but it’s my job; after a long day of looking at art, I doubted that I’d want to cuddle up with it, too.


And so I held my breath as I checked in, then rode the rickety elevator up to the fourth floor to Room 415. I creaked open the old door and there was the art; it was awful. Above my headboard were plexi-covered photographs of fall-colored leaves jutting out down accordion-pleated stairs. It was an Instagram-lover’s dream; You like simple, pretty pictures of nature? Here you go! Unsurprisingly, it’s called the “Snapshot” room, and the leaves were photographed at Toronto’s High Park, a 400-acre city park with playgrounds and a zoo.

From a design standpoint, those leaves didn’t offer much. All those sharp lines bulging out of the wall made the already-small room feel even smaller. And I felt noticeably colder; the leaves made my room seem planted down in the great northern woods. I was nonplussed, but spying four pillows floating like buoys on the double bed, I plopped down, and quickly fell asleep amid all four of them. (Very possibly, the pillows were my favorite part.)

So maybe I got a lemon. There were, after all, 36 other rooms to explore. With the help of the Gladstone’s marketing manager Andi Larocca, I set about on a tour of the other artist-designed rooms. “All artists are told to do whatever they want,” she told me, “but they need to include three things: a bed with a headboard, and room for a TV and a desk.” Any local artist can approach the staff, Larocca added, in hopes of implementing their wacky dream-designs. That experimentation surely accounts for some variation within the rooms. And although you never really can tell what you’re going to get when you tell someone to “do whatever they want,” I appreciate that can-do attitude. There’s even a long line of conceptual art that follows this game logic, from exquisite corpse to Fluxus sports, each of which is more interesting for the game than the art itself. At the Gladstone, I entered rooms where artists interpret that game loosely; one room contained vintage hand luggage, stacked up Jenga-style with a TV placed atop of it.

By far the strangest room I saw was a work-in-process, a Fruit Loops-colored room by Bob Blumer, an artist, chef, and host of the Food Network’s The Surreal Gourmet—every few years, the rooms get switched out and artists are given a budget to create new work. Blumer’s room features a slice of Swiss cheese suspended mid-air from the ceiling, a Pillsbury Dough Boy painting hiding a flatscreen TV, and a rainbow sprinkle-covered doughnut above the bright blue toilet paper, and an artist-designed armoire filled with, of course, Fruit Loops wall paper. It was Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and it seemed to have very little to do with art. But that silliness—a word that could end up describing most of the rooms I visited—is often missing from blue-chip art, so kudos to the Gladstone for that. (Although, honestly, I can’t imagine anyone staying in that room without getting junk-food nightmares. Beware anyone planning a romantic getaway in that room; that’d be nearly impossible with the Dough Boy’s beady blue eyes staring down at the bed.)

Contrast this rampant silliness and experimentation with New York’s “art hotels.” The art inside the Ace Hotel’s rooms sticks mostly to wall work; and from the website, there seems to be a lot of street art-inspired graffiti. The artists aren’t local—but you wouldn’t necessarily expect that from a global chain of hotels. Then there’s the Jane, a boutique hotel that does host art events, but I’d be hard-pressed to call it an “art hotel.” I do see the Gladstone’s model as one that could work in New York; it’s another way to give artists a budget to produce new work, and I’m sure there’s plenty who could dream up some never-before seen models. Here’s hoping some of them might be cozy.

2 Comment

  • Kirsch didn’t mention the Carlton Arms art hotel on 25th and Third Ave near Baruch College… that’s a real quirky “art hotel.” Worth mentioning.

  • I would call that elevator a lot of things—heavy? imposing? showoffy?—but I’m not sure that rickety would be one of them. I’ve stayed in two rooms at the Gladstone, the better of which had a really great photo in the bathroom of a squirrel shooting lasers out of its eyes. I’ve been meaning to find out who did it for, um, four months now.