When the Lobby is a Gallery: “Artful Bridges” and an In-House Art Curator Check in at Jumeirah Essex House

New York hotels discovered eons ago that empty walls and fine art go together like poached eggs and Hollandaise. Consider the Audubon and Piranesi prints in The Carlyle guest rooms. Or the contemporary art by one-time residents like Larry Rivers and Susan Olmetti blanketing the Chelsea Hotel lobby.

So many hotels boast noteworthy art I’ll revisit the subject from time to time. For now, picture the black marble lobby of the Jumeirah Essex House, the 509-room, 78-year-old Art Deco tower overlooking Central Park.

In celebration of its deep-dish renovation in 2007, the hotel anointed its first artists-in-residence, photographer Atta Kim and urban landscape painter Mark Innerst, and dressed the lobby in their commissioned work. The only requirement: the art must be inspired by Central Park.

Kim’s color-saturated photographs and an Innerst painting remain on view. And the artist-in-residence program flourishes overseen by Katherine Gass, the hotel curator since 2006.

Earlier this month a large Plexiglas case displaying small white sculptures by the architectural team of Aranda/Lasch appeared in the lobby. Entitled “20 Bridges for Central Park,” the pieces — created in plastic from computer renderings and produced through a three-dimensional printing process called stereolithography — are idea driven rather than literal representations of the park’s bridges. Each model is mounted on an aluminum base to suggest water beneath. The artists’ stated mission is to explore existing relationships between features in the park by bridging them – in other words, by highlighting these relationships with a conceptual arch made in a physical limited edition, ie a sculpture.

If the above seems puzzling, it isn’t when you see the exhibition. Next to the case of sculptures is an identical case holding a large map of Central Park, marked with the site of each bridge. It’s a brainy show that requires time and attention, but it’s rewarding. A photo-shopped picture nearby shows what one of the bridges would look like were it to appear in the park.

Gass, whose resume includes posts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Chase Manhattan Bank Art Collection and the Aldrich Contemporary Museum of Art, learned of Ben Aranda and Chris Lasch’s work from a magazine article and followed their work for a while before approaching them with the Essex House commission. “I was just amazed by what they came up with,” she says. “It was the most inventive and exciting concept.

“What I love about their project is that they focus on the conceptual aspect of the bridge as an arch that connects one point to another,” she continues. “They then applied their own visual language to this exploration. The project offers new kinds of playful connections and brings the viewers’ attention to new places in the park.”

The exhibition will be on display through late spring. The work, which the hotel owns, will be reinstalled somewhere else in the building down the road. Where can we look for it? “We haven’t quite figured that out yet!”  Gass says.






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