UAE hotels are drawing guests with art

More and more hotels are turning to art to attract guests. Are they having an influence on the art scene or is it vice versa?

A room at Noon Art Boutique Hotel Apartments that incorporates patterns from Najat Makki's artwork. Courtesy Noon Art Boutique Hotel Apartments
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Sitting on a plinth in the lobby of The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) is Jack. According to the manager, he is the city's most photographed dog.
Jack the Dog is a bright purple bull terrier by the French artist Fabienne Arietti and he sits alongside a pine tree fashioned from repurposed books by the Colombian artist Federico Uribe. The two sculptures are part of a collection of about 30 pieces, on loan from Opera Gallery in DIFC's Gate Village, that are scattered around the hotel.
To mark its arrival, this month the hotel has launched a new package called "Discover with You", which includes a guided tour of the hotel's art collection and the gallery, led by the manager Annamaria Bersani.
"Since we opened in 2011, we have looked at what local flavours we could bring into the hotel and since we are so close to all the DIFC galleries, we looked at how we could extend this to the public," explains Lothar Quarz, the Ritz-Carlton DIFC's general manager, about the latest package.
But Quarz is not alone. Other hotels have also been turning to art as a selling point for their guests and as the gallery scene continues to expand, with increased international attention at both annual art fairs, it is likely that more will follow suit.
Take the Kempinski Hotel, Mall of the Emirates as an example. The renovated lobby and a new corridor that stretches towards an extension, which opened in January, now incorporates two specially commissioned paintings by the Emirati artist Mohammed Al Qassab.
Leila Abdulrahim, the director of Hirsch Bedner Associates, a hospitality interior design company responsible for spearheading the project at the Kempinski, says she has noticed a definite shift in art appreciation.
"When I came to Dubai 12 or 13 years ago, art wasn't a priority and most of my clients didn't have collections at all. Now it has changed enormously and art has taken on a much greater understanding here - I am thrilled."
In Abu Dhabi, the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr has a similar corridor, which is bathed in light for most of the day and functions as a beautiful gallery space. It was recently home to an extensive exhibition by the art collective No White Walls.
Across the city on the waterfront of Sowwah Square, the Rosewood Abu Dhabi has 250 art pieces from its collection showing in public spaces as well as the guest rooms and suites.
But outside the sphere of chain hotels that are tweaking their marketing campaigns to attract the growing numbers of art-conscious tourists, there is one establishment that has always had art at its heart.
The XVA Art Hotel, set among the wind towers of Al Fahidi Cultural Neighbourhood alongside Dubai Creek, opened 11 years ago with just seven rooms, a small art gallery and some studios. It has since become something of an institution, while retaining its "hidden gem" status.
It now has 13 rooms and an award-winning vegetarian cafe; in November last year, the gallery space expanded into two adjacent houses.
At the beginning, though, XVA's founder Mona Hauser was catering to a specific audience; nowadays major establishments are approaching her for help to fill their hotels with art.
"Everybody is evolving when it comes to art," Hauser says. "People who own big hotel chains realise that putting up a print with a few splashes of colour is boring and people are more sophisticated now."
When it comes to increasing competition in the art-hotel market, Hauser is not at all perturbed.
"It is great," she says. "If more artists can put their art out there, then the world is a better place and to see something genuine is so much better than a blank space that has simply been filled for the sake of it."
In February, perhaps the nearest competitor to Hauser's one-of-a-kind hotel opened its doors in Al Barsha, Dubai.
Noon Art Boutique Hotel Apartments has an in-house gallery with 40 original artworks by three Arab artists: Najat Makki, Ali Hassan and Khaled Ben Slimane. However, the owners have extended this concept further by covering the entire interior using patterns from the paintings to decorate the ceilings, furniture, windows, wallpaper and even the bathroom walls.
It is a complete immersion into the world of that artist.
"For us, opening an art hotel means that someone can come and live the art rather than just look at it and leave," explains Rasha Al Mutawa, the hotel's director. "We expect the guest to have a full understanding of the artist by the time their stay is over."
The majority of the paintings at Noon Art Boutique Hotel Apartments were commissioned for the hotel and the interior design was made with the paintings as a starting point. "It is details like this that show we have done something different from anyone else in Dubai," says Haresh A Dhanani, the managing director. "We can therefore appeal to people who have no prior knowledge of art."
Perhaps in such a competitive environment, it is important to maintain this edge.
On Sheikh Zayed Road, where the hotels stretch out in a long line adjacent to each other, the Four Points by Sheraton certainly took this into consideration when it opened its Z Gallery last year. "As tourists in Dubai, it is difficult to pack in everything - whether it is the city tour with its landmarks, the malls, the many restaurants or the nightlife. So you're bound to give one or the other up," says Erik Vedsegaard, the hotel's general manager. "We make it easier by providing an in-house art gallery for our guests to browse through at their own time."
While this might provide some entertainment for guests, it is still unlikely that the art crowds will make their way there to see the art itself, but Vedsegaard hopes that will change. "Eventually," she says, "we hope for it to become a regular haunt for artists and art lovers."