Not your Grandma’s hotel lobby: Seattle’s Hotel Max is chic and cheerful.

NOT SO LONG AGO, A GREAT HOTEL MEANT 600-THREAD-COUNT SHEETS, premium vodka in the mini-bar, a 24-hour gym and you, swathed in a plush robe, watching Pay-Per-View. Your room — a veritable sanctuary — was almost perfect. Almost. There was that benign art on the walls that wasn’t particularly memorable. Maybe it was a faux Audubon print, a gilt-framed Monet reproduction or, if you happened to be in a rustic resort, a clichéd portrait of an Indian chief in full headdress.

“I call that ‘beige art,’” says freelance curator Tessa Papas. Easy on the eyes, but not particularly thought-provoking. Whether it’s in your home or in a hotel room, art should be more than just something to “… fill space over the sofa,” says Papas, who selects art for the Hotel Max in Seattle. “Chosen with care, paintings, prints, photographs — and even digital art on plasma screens — can give a hotel true, original character.”

Indeed, good art, whether it’s by a famous Soho somebody or a grad student at the local art school, makes hotel lobbies and guestrooms infinitely more personal than lukewarm reproductions. Forward-thinking hoteliers agree: Savvy travelers want more than a bed, a burger and a bottle of Burgundy, even if that burger is organic and the Burgundy a Premier Grand Cru. Following the boutique hotel trend (think Morgan’s in New York, Sanderson in London) came the hip chains — like the W — embraced by travelers looking for sleek décor and ultra-luxe bedding. The newest phase? The hospitality industry calls the category art hotels. Small or large, old or new, what they have in common, obviously, is an emphasis on the hotel’s collection of visual arts that gives guests a genuine sense of place.

“I think people want a hotel to reflect the area in which they’re staying. Local art — or art that somehow nods to the regional vibe — can achieve that,” says Lise Magee, public relations director for the Listel Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia. Barbara Shaiman, director of the SAM Gallery, who consults for the Alexis Hotel, concurs. “Most of our permanent collection is by Northwest artists. Our third floor features Joan Broughton’s photos of Pike Place market performers; the fifth floor, which is in high demand, is filled with Charles Peterson’s photographs of Kurt Cobain and other iconic figures of the grunge scene.”

Hotel Derek includes works by renowned artists such as Arthur Myerson.

ZaZa’s take on classic portraiture.

The installations at Hotel Alexis are intended to offer guests an introduction to the Northwest.

The Derek in Houston has quite a different take on local art. Texas photographer Arthur Meyerson’s images of numbers (yes, numbers) are showcased in 6-foot-high light-boxes and are the first thing guests see when exiting the elevator. The numbers come from all over Houston, “… it’s an authentic snapshot of the ‘Bayou city,’” says hotel general manager Steven André.

The ZaZa in Houston — the only luxury hotel in the museum district — shows off the local scene via digital art. “We have huge screens behind the check-in desk, on the patio and behind the bar,” says Stuart Rosenberg, ZaZa’s account executive. The screens — which are like giant computer monitors with crisp, clean resolution — show original art content from students attending the Art Institute of Houston. “It’s an amazing new medium — one that we think is truly up-and-coming — and it enables us to support the local art community,” says Rosenberg.

But local color doesn’t have to mean local artists. Elizabeth Weiner, curator for the Four Seasons Jackson Hole, selected art from around the world for the stunning Teton mountain resort. And no matter who the artist — whether it’s Miro or Mangold — the combination works. For example, even though the hotel’s décor is decidedly Western, British artist Nicola Hicks’ da Vinci-esque drawings of horses (and other animals) hold their own in cowboy country. Weiner’s contemporary art selection is somewhat unexpected, but definitely complements the hotel’s Western interior with its tasteful pony skin and tooled leather details.

Décor is important, but servicing guests is an equally viable reason to exhibit art. “Many of our travelers are in Seattle for a quick business trip and don’t have time to visit galleries and museums,” says Alexis’ Barbara Shaiman. “So, the hotel brings the art to the guest. Our installations are a good introduction to the Northwest art scene.”

The interior designer at Hotel Max doesn’t shy away from color for guest room art displays.

These classic pony skin chairs offer a welcome to the West, Four Seasons style.

The interior designer at Hotel Max doesn’t shy away from color for guest room art displays.

But not all the western art hotels are outdoorsy, edgy or on plasma screens. Consider San Francisco’s Grand Dame, the Fairmont, where pearls, not piercings, are de rigueur. “In addition to our Heritage Hall — a permanent photojournalistic collection of the history of the hotel and the city of San Francisco — we also have weekly works-on-paper exhibits with a curator,” says Michelle Gilman, regional director of sales and marketing. “Many of our guests are into educational travel, and hotel art is a way to help create that experience.”

Some art hotels work with major institutions for installations and inspiration. “We collaborate with the UBC Museum of Anthropology to create our museum floors,” says the Listel’s Lise Magee. “Rooms on these two floors feature art by Northwest artists and are a tribute to all things distinctly British Columbian,” says Magee.

This art-and-hotel partnership has been manna from heaven for the artists involved, many of whom have shown in a hotel lobby, then later at a major gallery. “Some artists were little-known but doing amazing work,” says Tessa Papas. “Part of our goal was to give them exposure.” The Alexis has also seen success, selling two or three pieces from each show.

But whether it serves the artists or the guests, there are also altruistic reasons for showing art. The Four Season’s Weiner says her goal is to bring art to the public. For Lise Magee, the reasons are more emotional: “I just love seeing guests stop in their tracks in front of a piece of art and say, ‘Wow.’”

The Four Seasons’ bar in Jackson Hole is rustic, refined and replete with great art.

Vancouver’s Listel features Northwest art and contemporary comfort.

If you go ...

LISTEL HOTEL

1300 Robson Street | Vancouver, BC Canada V6E1C5 | 604.684.8461 | www.thelistelhotel.com

FOUR SEASONS JACKSON HOLE

7680 Granite Loop Teton Village, WY 83025 | 307.732.5000 | www.fourseasons.com

THE FAIRMONT HOTEL

950 Mason Street San Francisco, CA 94108 | 415.772.5000 | www.fairmont.com/sanfrancisco

HOTEL DEREK

2525 West Loop South Houston, TX 77027 | 713.961.3000 | www.hotelderek.com

HOTEL ALEXIS

1007 First Avenue Seattle, WA 98104 | 206.624.4844 | www.alexishotel.com

HOTEL ZAZA

5701 Main Street Houston, TX 77005 | 713.526.1991 | www.hotelzaza.com

HOTEL MAX SEATTLE

620 Stewart St. Seattle, WA 98101 | 866.833.6299 | www.hotelmaxseattle.com

Hotel Alexis’ sleek decor provides a neutral backdrop for local art.

Houston’s Hotel Zaza is known for its digital displays and Texas hospitality.