Is artistic controversy healthy in hotels?

Art has always been defined by controversy. Just look at Vincent van Gogh or Frida Kahlo, who only really gained mainstream recognition and became influential posthumously. Pablo Picasso’s first forays in cubism were likewise met with disdain. Yet all these artists are now venerated, each calling to mind one or two universally known works.

Even in our postmodern world, artistic controversy thrives. The question is, should hotels involve themselves in this ongoing debate, or should it be left to the galleries, festivals and museums? I present the following case study both as an ethical dilemma for hotels and as a microcosm of one of the most definitive themes of contemporary art through the ages.

But first, some background…

The Hazelton Hotel is a boutique, super-luxury, 62-room, 15-suite property snug in the downtown Toronto enclave of Yorkville, known for its posh shops, art galleries and ritzy apartments. With the dirge of recently finished competitors including a new Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and Shangri-La, all with international brands and economies of scale to leverage, The Hazelton needs to differentiate itself.

This is largely accomplished via outstanding and personable guest services as well as the scrupulous attention to detail given to the décor, amenities, spa, restaurant and other product offerings. Given its boutique nature, part of the strategy for The Hazelton is to establish itself as Toronto’s leader in the ‘local luxury’ hospitality niche.

One initiative to this end has been the property’s stalwart support of the city’s fine arts community. There are paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures in every guestroom and throughout the lobby — it’s a prodigious collection rivaling that of any gallery in the city. They even have an art guidebook and a specifically designated art concierge to liaise guests in all manner of craft-related inquires.

Recently, the property launched their inaugural plinth contest, officially dubbed The Hazelton Plinth, to raise awareness for sculptors active in the Toronto area. The concept was borrowed from London’s Fourth Plinth contest, which saw a winning piece of art adorned atop a platform in Trafalgar Square. But it carries a special weight when applied across the pond, as there are presently very few such competitions in Canada that distinguish sculptors.

For starters, “plinth” is the precise word to describe the pedestal upon which a sculpture stands, and The Hazelton happened to have some prime real estate available in its already bustling lobby space. So, the hotel asked local sculptors to submit a work for scrutiny by an independent panel of three judges chosen from a cross-section of the Toronto art scene.

Apart from building community ties and helping give exposure to emerging and established Canadian artists, the objective was to temporarily change the dynamics of the space through the installation of a contemporary piece. The victor would have their piece on display in the lobby for a period of six months along with plenty of PR.

As it was the first year up and running, the hotel was expecting a modest 20 submissions. It received more than 150. And from this resounding number of entries, a winner emerged in the piece “I See Through Them” (2011) by Jaime Angelopoulos, who, at the age of 30, is ostensibly young considering most sculptors don’t “hit pay dirt” until well into their forties.

First, congratulations are in order. Fine art is a tough game, with innumerous studio hours spent toiling away and no clear destination in sight — doubly true for sculpting. Ms. Angelopoulos is an accomplished artist and deserves recognition for her time, labor and craft. If you’re in town, drop by The Hazelton to see her work on display now until July.

Unfortunately, not all was met by cheers and applause. Take a look at Angelopoulos’s sculpture. At a glance, you might notice that the shaggy pinks and vertiginous appendages are the antithesis of blending in. In all my cultural naiveté, I liken it to a funky cross between some bizarre creature from “Avatar” and Mr. Snuffleupagus from “Sesame Street.” But it is nonetheless a powerful work of art and definitely worthy of praise for its vivisection of bodily perceptions (hence the title) and its unorthodox use of materials.

However, it has become a cause for debate among the hotel’s condominium residents. In their defense, the residents’ voice was not represented on the panel of judges who made the winning entry decision. Thinking broadly, where should The Hazelton stand in terms of supporting Toronto’s sculpting community, even if that entails the promotion of works that might not be “the safe bet” or universally extolled?

Speaking of materials, what is perhaps most divisive is how radically different Angelopoulos’s work is from the norm in terms of color and abstract. In the world of sculpting, there is a supposed “hierarchy” of materials starting with bronze, then stone, marble, granite, ceramic and so on — all dating back to a classification system from the Italian Renaissance. Under this antiquated taxonomy, Angelopoulos’ work is definitely made from what people would consider “lower-level” materials. Not only does this contest winner challenge mainstream barometers of quality, but I ask you: what is “low grade” about hammering 150,000 individual pieces of hand-cut fabric into one unified form?

As of now, David Mounteer, the GM of The Hazelton, has declared Angelopoulos’ work will remain unmoved. It is, after all, only a temporary venture, and 2013’s competition this autumn will offer another round of hopefuls and potential controversy.

What’s ironic about this whole scuffle is that Yorkville used to be the epicenter of hippie culture and progressive art back in the 1960s. Now it appears to be just the opposite. The Hazelton Plinth competition may have sparked outrage from the local Yorkvillians, but it has won the hearts and minds of the Toronto art community, who now firmly views The Hazelton Hotel as a defender of contemporary art.

This debate draws upon the nature of public art. You can never make everyone happy, and oftentimes when you try to appeal to everyone, you end up appealing to no one.

And how does this relate to your hotel? Think about the thought process by which you choose the decorations for your rooms and lobbies. Are you always making the safe choice? Do you seek out interior designers whose credentials and visions exude neutrality? Are you always drawn to bland and emotionless works of art to fill your hotel spaces?

Remember that a consumer’s selection in hotels is a choice dominated by emotion. If you aren’t giving guests anything provocative to look at, then you aren’t giving them any emotional attachment — one way or another — to your brand. Sometimes it is better to be controversial than to be nothing at all.