Some hotels might show art on their walls but few have been engineered to put culture at their centre. We visit four properties that prove that adding a touch of hospitality to a gallery – or an exhibition space to lodgings – is an artful way to make culture pay.
The Greek island of Aegina, in the Saronic Gulf just southwest of Athens, has long been a draw for creatives. Driving north along the coastal road from the port, it’s easy to understand why. The pine-tree-lined road winds past stone towers, well-preserved historic buildings and a lighthouse. The now deceased artists Yannis Moralis and Nikos Nikolaou, sculptor Christos Kapralos and writer Níkos Kazantzákis all built their homes and ateliers on Aegina. “Nikolaou taught at the Athens School of Fine Arts but lived here all year, commuting to and from Piraeus every day,” says Athens-based architect Theodore Zoumboulakis of his late uncle, his words accompanied by the sound of late-summer cicadas.
“It was always on our minds to breathe life back into this place”
Theodore is showing monocle around the Nikolaou Residence, the artist’s former home, which has been turned into five stone-built guesthouses in a pistachio grove. The grounds’ centrepiece is the airy dining room, next to Nikolaou’s former atelier. Ever since inheriting the property in 2001, the family had long wanted to open the space up to visitors but running it as a private museum would have been financially challenging; turning it into a family-style guesthouse (and not a luxury hotel) allows them to keep it accessible to a wide spectrum of guests but also to make it viable as a business. “We have so many childhood memories of this place and it was always on our minds to breathe life back into it,” says Theodore, who started on the first business plan in 2015 and self-funded the project (he has invested about €500,000 so far). “We were reluctant at first because it was during the [Greek government-debt] crisis. But when we saw tourism picking up and getting stronger, that all changed.”
Some of the commercial expertise comes courtesy of his sister Daphne Zoumboulakis, who studied art conservation in London before returning to take over the family’s eponymous art gallery in Athens. This is the first time that the siblings have joined forces for a hospitality project, a sector that they had no expertise in. “Our uncle and aunt would host friends and artists from around the island here almost every night,” she says. “We wanted to keep that openness alive.”
Theodore renovated the first three guesthouses in 2019 and finished another two this summer. Three more are on the cards. “We tried to keep everything as close as possible to the buildings’ original aesthetics, while adding in the comforts of a small boutique hotel,” he says. The idea was also to root the residence in its artistic heritage: this year Nikolaou’s former studio opened to the public by appointment. “Our aunt dreamed of this becoming a little museum,” says Daphne. “We’ve tried to place his works in situ just as he had arranged them.”
Filled with paintings, drawings and sculptures – some of which were once loaned to the Vatican – the atelier is a colourful treasure trove. “Beyond his canvas paintings, he loved experimenting with different materials,” says Daphne, pointing to the artist’s collection of faces painted on stones and dried pumpkins. Nikolaou’s art-history books line the shelves too, ready for anyone to browse.
“The idea is to help people feel inspired, to think, write and produce”
Theodore hopes that the emphasis on creativity will encourage guests to explore their own artistic side. “The idea is to help people feel inspired, to think, write and produce,” he says. He aims to keep the guesthouses open all year; there are plans to host events, workshops and talks. “We’re hoping to start a café. You’ll be able to work or enjoy the sunset and eat a sweet treat prepared using ingredients from local producers.”
The hotel enjoys a steady stream of foreign guests. “We love to see repeat visitors,” says Theodore, who manages daily operations, having learnt his trade on the job. “At first I considered handing over management to another hotel chain or a third party but now I find it fascinating.” His sister agrees. “We feel lucky to have the opportunity to revive such a beautiful part of our past,” says Daphne. “And to be able to share that with the world.”
When the opportunity arose in 2018 to renovate the run-down Fort Road Hotel in the English coastal town of Margate, Matthew Slotover, co-founder of Frieze magazine and its namesake art fairs, property developer Gabriel Chipperfield and artist Tom Gidley didn’t hesitate. They snapped it up for a reported £360,000 (€415,000).
For Slotover, who also co-owns London restaurant Toklas, the worlds of hospitality and art are not so dissimilar. “I’ve noticed that many artists take food seriously as a craft,” says Slotover. “You can create something fantastic from basic materials.” He is not the first to have dabbled in both fields: over the past few years, Iwan and Manuela Wirth, co-founders of Hauser & Wirth, debuted their own hotel in the Scottish Highlands and are in the process of opening a revamped, art-oriented pub in Mayfair, London’s commercial-gallery heartland.
Plenty of luxury hotels have made a show of expensive artworks in their lobbies but at Fort Road the relationship with art is more meaningful and discreet. A quick scan of the 13-key hotel reveals the range of talented creatives that Slotover has drawn on. The inviting sage-green restaurant is dotted with pieces by the likes of Tim Noble, Cherelle Sappleton and Mercedes Workman. A bespoke mural by Sophie von Hellerman leads to the basement bar, where a signature neon scribble by Margate native Tracey Emin announces “More Love” over a homely alcove. The rooms feature Gidley’s selection of more low-key pieces by lesser-known artists of the 20th century, while the corridors are adorned with postcards from Margate’s heyday as a Georgian seaside resort.
The artworks are not explicitly for sale but enquiries aren’t completely off the cards. “There are no price tags,” says Slotover. “But if someone really fell in love with a piece, we could talk to the artists and arrange something – but that’s not part of the business plan.” One thing that the art certainly does is add to the allure of spending the night here. As Margate undergoes a creative resurgence after decades of decay – a turnaround largely spearheaded by the opening of the Turner Contemporary – this town’s appeal to art enthusiasts can only be good for business. “Art is often experienced individually,” says Slotover. “We need a point to come together and celebrate.”
Born to a Taiwanese-American mother from Detroit and a Chinese father from Hong Kong, Katherine Lo’s childhood straddled multiple cultures. She felt like an outsider for not being Chinese enough in Hong Kong and not American enough in the US, and often took refuge in the library. This experience led to an appreciation of culture’s role in fostering a sense of belonging and later inspired her to create Eaton, a hotel and co-working company with outposts in Washington and Hong Kong. “Our mission is to transform Eaton into a community,” says Lo. “It supports social and environmental causes, as well as artists.”
What makes Eaton stand out is its programming. At Eaton DC, exhibitions on identity, gender and race regularly rotate within its gallery walls and its studio rooms host work by local artists. Its theatre holds concerts and provides a space for both established and emerging film-makers; in November it will host screenings as part of the Current Movements Film Festival. A radio studio at the front of the hotel makes recordings of grass-roots storytellers and broadcasts underground music.
“Eaton supports social issues, as well as artists”
Lo’s family business is hospitality. She is the daughter of Lo Ka Shui, chairman of Great Eagle Holdings, the Hong Kong property giant behind the five-star luxury hotel The Langham. But she initially chose a different path, studying anthropology and film production. “Throughout my life it was kept pretty separate from us,” she says. “I didn’t grow up around that.”
Lo was in her late twenties when she started to work with her father, putting her film-production skills to use by documenting the making of The Langham Chicago. But it wasn’t until he asked her to help him understand the major changes in US society over the past few years – and whether she could create a hotel brand that reflected them – that she got involved. The result was Eaton, which launched in 2018.
Incorporated as a public-benefit corporation, Eaton is obliged to deliver results in its cultural mission, not just in its financial performance. Though most of its programming is free of charge, the venture has many revenue streams. “Eaton makes money from its cafés, restaurants and bars; its wellness class and guest-room bookings; its house memberships and private events,” says Lo. “We take a percentage and funnel it back into supporting our programming.”
The company’s properties have the scale to deliver results. Its Washington outpost offers 209 guest rooms, while there are 465 in Eaton HK. Because Washington is a hub for ngos, government workers, journalists and protesters, the hotel attracts a socially conscious clientele.
Lo hopes that Eaton will make a positive difference in the cultural life of its surroundings. “I would love to prove that you can build a socially and environmentally conscious brand,” says Lo. “One that gives back to the community but is also financially viable.”
A collection of well-appointed safari lodges, Singita recently opened two art galleries inside its properties in South Africa. Other than providing guests with exhibitions to browse while on holiday, the spaces were created to support neighbouring communities with some of the proceeds from art sales. Closing deals in these spaces might be made a little easier by the fact that the buyers are a captive audience but Jo Bailes, Singita’s coo and the brains behind the project, always wants to ensure that the offer is top-notch. He has enlisted the expertise of curator Elana Brundyn, former ceo of celebrated Cape Town institution Norval Foundation, and showcased work by the likes of Athi-Patra Ruga and Lucinda Mudge. With more gallery openings planned in Tanzania and Rwanda, Bailes reveals why it makes sense to bring art on safari.
What advantages does this gallery have over a commercial gallery?
Nature has always been an inspiration for artists: the fact that our galleries are in the middle of the wilderness is an incredible integration of beauty and art. Also, having them set here, where we have some of the wealthiest clients in the world falling in love with Africa, is a unique set of variables.
Are some of these clients new to art buying? How does that benefit you?
It’s an opportunity for us to introduce non-art buyers into the art-buying world. Being one of the most high-end safari operators in Africa, the type of audience that we attract has a huge amount of disposable income. We have a responsibility to showcase the best of art and design, and to educate guests about it. We enable them to take inspiration from the continent home. Hopefully, it will allow them to keep Africa top of mind and create conversations when people visit them.
How can you expand this model as a business venture?
Among many other forms of African creativity, art is key to our brand going forward. Elana is going to help us to create a reputation as a respected art source for collectors and for artists to stock their work. We’d like to make it sustainable and financially viable long-term, as well as helping the communities surrounding our lodges, where we can help promote and stimulate future artists.
Photographers: Marco Aguello, Dan Wilton, Mariah Miranda