Luring the luxury tourist trade with art

Great corporate art collections have long been a means of establishing a company's image -- more public relations than marketing. But in the fiercely competitive '80s, art is fast becoming a marketing tool to position or sell a company in the marketplace. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of travel. In an effort to establish a competitive edge in a crowded marketplace, hotels are becoming art museums.

A case in point is the Ritz-Carlton's new Laguna Niguel hotel in southern California, filled with nearly $2 million in antiques and paintings. And when Lou Cataffo, principal of Intradesign Inc., was chosen to design the interiors of the new Century Plaza Tower in Century City, he selected nearly $1 million worth of original art to be placed in the $80 million, 322-room hotel. Each piece was chosen by Mr. Cataffo to create a luxurious, residential feel. A work by David Hockney hangs behind the front desk , and additional works by Sam Francis, Ed Moses, and Eric Orr hang throughout the building.

Works by major artists are often used, but Intercontinental Hotels has chosen to fill its new hotel in New Orleans with the works of promising young contemporary artists. The company's art policy began in the late '70s, when its Athens hotel was being planned. It was decided to feature the works of emerging Greek artists such as Achilles Droungas, Yiannis Bouteas, Panayotis Vassilakis, and Costa Paniaras in the public spaces.

Paniaras's tricolored Greek pillar stands alone in the lobby, creating an arresting focal point in the huge beige marble expanse. The art project was a daring one, Mr. Paniaras notes.

``To incorporate works of art of the kind you see here was not easy for people to accept in Greece,'' he says. ``It's very daring, but also very effective.'' He feels that having his work in a public place makes it easier for people to accept, and he credits this for the growing popularity of Greek contemporary art.

When Laurance S. Rockefeller built the Mauna Kea hotel on the big island of Hawaii, his love of Pacific art led him to amass a collection that he used to decorate the rooms and public areas. Today, no longer owned by Rockefeller, the Westin Mauna Kea has signed an agreement with Hawaii's Bishop Museum for the museum to act as conservator of what is now recognized as one of the most important collections of Asian and Pacific art in the country. Under the ownership of UAL Inc., parent of United Airlines, the hotel has established a policy of adding to the collection on a yearly basis. Each week Dr. Don Aanavi, professor of Asian and Western art history at the University of Hawaii, conducts tours among the more than 1,000 art objects, many of which are of museum quality and irreplaceable.

The art ranges from a striking 7th-century pink granite Buddha to a collection of 30 rare Hawaiian quilts. Throughout the halls, visitors come across temple toys from India, tribal masks and house posts from the Pacific Islands, and rare Chinese wood tables. The hotel is commissioning works by contemporary Hawaiian artists John Young, Lloyd Sexton, and Guy Buffet.

Hotels are not the only locales for corporate art collections. Shipping lines have long displayed works of art and design on ships, as witnessed by the opulence of the great Atlantic liners of the prewar period. Today several lines such as Royal Viking and Princess Cruises have put works of art aboard their ships, but no line has done more than Holland America. When planning construction of the Nieuw Amsterdam and Noordam in 1983 and '84, Nico van der Vorm, chairman of the board of Holland America, deci ded to place a portion of his collection of European artifacts and art aboard. The decision turned both ships into floating museums, with about $1.5 million worth of 17th-century Dutch art on each ship. Selected pieces from the owner's private collection are also aboard the Rotterdam, the line's third ship.

With a huge collection to draw from, the ships' art focuses on the age of Dutch exploration and includes artifacts from the 16th and 17th centuries, carved wooden stern pieces from sailing ships, and Chinese artifacts from the voyages of the Dutch East India Company.

Civic and national pride plays some part in this form of corporate collecting. But why should corporations place such large sums in fine arts for a limited segment of the public to enjoy? ``We are doing it for three basic reasons,'' says Eleanor Leslie, vice-president of marketing, planning, and research with Intercontinental Hotels. ``First, we want to create an ambiance that is lovely and uplifting to the spirit. Secondly, it's a plus in the area of community relations. We can support young artists in the areas where our hotels are located. In the third place, it just makes good financial sense. It's better to invest in fine art that's going to appreciate than to purchase something we'd just have to throw away in a few years.''

Corporations are discovering that in addition to being a marketing advantage, art is also profitable. It's a reality that bodes well for artists around the world.

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