Image: Illustration by Manelisi Dabata

In February 2022 I came across an article about archaeologists working at a site in London’s Southwark borough who had unearthed an intricately tessellated floor set with red, white, and black tiles. As they exposed more and more of the surface, they realised that they had found a spectacularly preserved Roman mosaic. The original structure containing the mosaic is believed to have been a second- or early third-century Roman “mansio” — an “upmarket ‘motel’ offering accommodation, stabling, and dining facilities”.

As someone keenly interested in both fine art and hospitality, I was struck by this story because it highlighted that, even in the Roman Empire, it was understood that art and culture, when leveraged effectively, could be used to communicate a strong brand identity and enrich guests’ stay. As someone with a partner in the travel industry, I’m often disappointed by the lack of thoughtful art programming or curated exhibitions in hospitality settings.

For many years, hotels have been synonymous with “bland” art. Dreary, faded reproductions of Western-canon artworks adorn hotel lobbies and rooms, serving only a decorative function. I believe the hospitality industry is missing a valuable opportunity to offer guests memorable and meaningful experiences through the transformational potential of art and culture. Carefully curated events or exhibitions can satiate guests’ cultural appetite, develop emotional connections, and offer educational enrichment while amplifying creative practitioners.

In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of finding beautiful, well-considered spaces that are shifting away from purely transactional exchanges towards more emotional and experiential ones — with art playing a key role in this movement. Whether you are an art connoisseur, a culture novice or simply a traveller looking for new experiences, these destinations offer amiable yet thought-provoking exposure to contemporary art.

Carefully curated events or exhibitions can satiate guests’ cultural appetite, develop emotional connections

Benesse House, designed by celebrated Japanese architect Tadao Ando, is an exemplary instance, seamlessly merging art, architecture, and hospitality. Located on the “art island” of Naoshima, Japan, this complex houses multiple galleries, museums, and site-specific installations that include works by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Yayoi Kusama, and Bruce Nauman. The choice of works is considered and carefully curated. By grounding itself in the natural landscape of the island and its local heritage, it offers a sophisticated and sustainable approach to cultural immersion.

Through intentional integration — a process that has taken over 20 years — Benesse House has cultivated a multi-generational dialogue between tourists and island elders that is centred on contemporary art. In so doing, it demonstrates the powerful potential of art and hospitality to inspire impactful cross-cultural exchanges.

21c Museum Hotels, a growing US-based brand, balances its commercial interests with a commitment to the transformational power of contemporary art. Founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson are interested in creating spaces that drive empathy and inspire intellectual and educational engagement. The brand has a team of curators who organise exhibitions, acquire works, and develop educational programming.

Transformational art programmes need not steer away from being commercially driven, as shown by citizenM. This young, fun, and stylish budget-hotel chain boldly uses art as a marketing tool while disrupting traditional hospitality norms. By offering site-specific contemporary art installations, colourful interiors, and affordable luxury, citizenM gives the modern guest sustainable, cost-effective exposure to art and culture.

South African travellers seeking enriching cultural experiences need not look too far. During a recent business trip to Joburg, I had the privilege of staying at Voco Johannesburg Rosebank, which sports an incredible collection of over 750 local artworks, curated by Art Gazette. For those interested in the history behind the hotel’s collection, Voco offers informative art-butler tours led by passionate staff members, allowing guests to end their stay feeling both well-rested and culturally enriched.

Those looking to explore Cape Town’s local art scene should pay a visit to Ellerman House, a boutique hotel that not only hosts its own large collection of art but also offers extensive tours of local galleries across the city and into the winelands. Ellerman’s devotion to the city’s artistic economy is admirable, reaching beyond the hotel walls and offering guests the chance to enhance their vacation with greater cultural knowledge and experiences.

Each of these luxury destinations is deeply committed to harnessing the enriching potential of fine art and cultures. Whether that be through an interest in history, community or experiences, these luxury destinations lead their programmes with strong intentionality, understanding that the value and impact of art can transcend its aesthetic merit.

 Elana Brundyn is the founder of art consultancy Brundyn Arts & Culture

• From the September edition of Wanted, 2023.

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