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ace hotel new york / 29th at b'way

‘We’ve found that operating from a foundation of kindness, compassion, empathy, and inclusivity can lead to new and wonderful places.’
— kelly sawdon / chief brand officer

words: kimya zahedi

images: ace hotel

art by james hannaham

art by james hannaham

    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. 

art by lissa rivera

art by lissa rivera

     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.

art by lissa rivera

art by lissa rivera


    The program allows the Ace Hotel to create relationships with a wide variety of NYC-based artists and cultural institutions. It keeps the hotel relevant within a more underground artistic community in NYC that may have otherwise written them off as another mainstream hotel chain. It keeps a steady flow of creatives circulating in the hotel. It’s part of a larger brand strategy that bets boldly on the power and predilections of creatives.   

note by matt murphy

note by matt murphy

    The hotel is undoubtedly a strong promoter of art and expression, and, particularly relative to other hotels of its caliber, extremely risk-taking and edgy. The AIR program’s existence alone is a testament to this. And yet, the endeavor isn’t completely perfect. There is always an invisible tension between the world of brands and the world of art. For Ace NY, the program isn’t necessarily about monetary value or press coverage. It’s about creating a platform to build relationships with the community and celebrate creative expression. Sometimes guests might think the artist is too loud, literally. Sometimes, the artists might push the limit of what the team can consider art. Like when in November 2014, for his residency, conceptual internet artist Ryder Ripps made news when he hired two sex workers on Craigslist to come to the hotel room to make the art themselves. Their drawings and the video tapes of the process were his creation. He called it, ‘ART WHORE,’ mocking both the prostitute-hotel-room trope, but also the Ace Hotel’s practice of asking artists to make art for very little money. The commentary on what he saw as the ‘exploitation’ of art and artists was ill-received by many and started an online firestorm. 

    In instances like these the brand might see its values pulled in the opposite direction of what a business typically focuses on – profits. And it is here that the spirit of the Ace Hotel dna has been fortified, the space between a for-profit business and the world of unfettered creative expression. And in the spirit of Calderwood, the hotel has retained a strong sense of authenticity. Younger consumers are hyper-sensitive to inauthentic branding - they can spot in a heartbeat when a business is capitalizing on a trend or telling them what they want to hear. The Ace Hotel’s ‘take us or leave us’ approach is therefore attractive to a generation inundated with trite hipster marketing. Their branding is less geared towards targeting consumer demographics like age, gender, and income, and more aimed at inviting in people with shared world views.    

    The AIR program has allowed Ace to have a stake within the local artistic community as a platform and conversation starter. As the website says, it’s ‘a world of weekly encounters that test the boundaries of social practice and that don’t necessarily conform to capital ‘A’ art.’ And while even without that capital A, this may sound a bit pretentious, that’s just New York for you.

    We had the opportunity to chat with Partner and Chief Brand Officer of Ace Hotel/Atelier Ace Kelly Sawdon about their vision and the inspiration behind the choices they make to appeal to creatives...


Tell us what the Ace Hotel brand means and represents.

    The Golden Rule.

Tell us how that manifests into choices that you make to partner with tasteful retail shops, restaurants, and to support local artists and musicians.

    Our philosophy has always been about honoring other people and cultivating relationships. We are endlessly curious and delighted by the people we meet, the conversations we have, and the talents and ideas that are borne from collaboration. We’ve found that operating from a foundation of kindness, compassion, empathy, and inclusivity can lead to new and wonderful places.    

    Working with others and learning from what they do is essential. We’re able to cross experiences and challenge our preconceptions. We welcome people that inherently allow us to think about things from a new perspective.

photos of artist leanne shapton

photos of artist leanne shapton

How do you reconcile the tension between operating for a profit and still championing art and creativity?

    We tend to think of the hotel as a platform for creative expression and exchange, and having a hotel room, that you can book, is just one small facet of the experience. It can also act as a cultural hub, a gathering place, a town hall, an office, an art gallery — as much for locals as it is for the people staying over.

    We build these hotels as tributes to the cities we fall in love with, and it feels good to be able to bring that out in our public spaces. We are not dealing with a tension, per se. We are just trying to look at the whole experience holistically.

What role do you want to see Ace Hotel play as a brand going forward? 

    We recognize that the more we grow, the more the onus is on us to think about our impact on a wider spectrum. We can see that Ace has a unique opportunity to help bring about positive social change in the arts and education communities by investing in the people and organizations who have been living and loving these cities long before we came around.

Should people look to brands as cultural influencers, or vice versa? 

 We should probably all be participating in a continuous, back-and-forth stream of critical dialogue between ourselves and what we come across on a daily basis — whether it be another person, a brand, a song, a piece of artwork, a film or a city — that’s part of what creates the richness of culture.