The Ace Hotel experience has almost nothing to do with a comfortable bed (although their beds are quite comfortable) and that seems to be working out just fine for them. With nine locations in the United States and one in Panama, the concept has grown over the last sixteen years into a mega brand, known as much for its hotel service as it is for its restaurants, art, events, collaborations, and cultural programs. As other hotel names struggle to remain relevant in the era of the shared economy, Ace Hotel seems to be thriving as the symbol of a fresh new age in the hospitality industry.
Their New York City hotel is busy, its lobby the Grand Central Station of hotel lobbies. There’s an eclectic array of people bustling about: some using laptops on long shared tables while others lounge on couches, drink at the bar, or sip coffee at café tables. There’s music. Free Wifi. It’s ‘happening’. And while at any given time people may enter the cultural hub for one of its two restaurants, its art gallery, event spaces, or retail stores such as Project No. 8 and Opening Ceremony, every Sunday there is one artist in the hotel for the sole purpose of making art.
The New York hotel’s Artists in Residence (AIR) program began in 2014 with a project called “24x36,” in which the hotel invited 36 artists to stay with them for 24 nights to produce 24 works. The first of these artists, Sto Len and Asha Man, helped set the program’s tone in transforming a guest room into a raw, psychedelic space — pushing the boundaries of what it means to temporarily occupy a hotel room. And now, every Sunday, the hotel invites an artist to come spend the night as an artist in residence, ‘to give their ideas some room to expand and fester and bloom,’ as explained on the hotel’s website. On Monday morning the creation is revealed.
Three years and 250 artists later, the program continues. Every month the hotel chooses a different New York-based organization or group to curate the month’s artists. In the past they’ve partnered with established mainstream institutions like the Museum of Art and Design, Buzzfeed, and Opening Ceremony to more DIY outfits like Flux Factory and PlayLab.
The artist is set up in one of the hotel’s rooms, given a basic art cart with pens, papers, and small tools, a 50-dollar stipend and a 40-dollar gift card towards the lobby bar. And with that, they are free to produce. In the past artists have painted oyster shells gathered from the downstairs oyster bar, taken intimate shirtless portraits of the hotel’s doormen, organized group conversations, composed musical scores, and 3-D printed shoes.
Since each hotel is meant to reflect the nature of its own city, no two Ace Hotels feel alike. It’s part of the brand’s appeal. Hotels that are context conscious. Extensions of their environments. The buildings have different architectural styles and the hotels have varying amenities, facilities, and programs. Each hotel has a cultural programmer with their own vision. One common theme shared by every Ace Hotel, however, is this emphasis on art. In fact, supporting art and artists was arguably the original intention of the founders and perhaps one of the key ingredients to their success.
The brand got its start in 1999 when friends Alex Calderwood, Wade Weigel, and Doug Herrick transformed a Seattle half way house into an affordable, 28 room hotel. Calderwood, then a club promoter in Seattle, was the real mastermind behind the project. He sought to build a place where his vast network of musician, artist, and deejay friends could afford to stay when visiting Seattle for events and parties. Calderwood died in 2013, but it’s in programs like AIR that his maverick vision as a facilitator and bridge for artists lives on.