Winnipeggers and visitors to the city view the Fort Garry Hotel as a stately architectural treasure and symbol of quality accommodation. Toronto curator Leala Hewak saw the grand railway chateau as a blank canvas.
Her trained eye looked beyond the bygone splendour that welcomes guests entering the lobby with its marble-inlay floor, limestone walls, bronze railings around the mezzanine, glittering chandelier and copper-detailed canopy.
Hewak, a former Winnipegger, saw the hotel was an ideal setting for contemporary art alongside the 101-year-old hotel's old-world decor.
Almost dared by her art collective partners William Eakin, Cliff Eyland and painter Craig Love, Hewak pitched the idea of the Fort Garry as an art hotel to co-owner Rick Bel, who was enthusiastic about the idea of offering his patrons a more memorable experience than just somewhere to sleep.
"It's the only hotel in Canada of this stature and size that has ever positioned itself as an art hotel," says Hewak, a multimedia photographer. "It's an added dimension for this really gorgeous property."
Art at the Fort Garry is a showcase of 45 works by 25 prominent Manitoba artists, including Wanda Koop, Eakin, Love, Eyland, Aganetha Dyck, Melanie Rocan, KC Adams and Diane Whitehouse. The paintings, photographs, prints, drawings and Paul Robles cut origami pieces are displayed in the lobby and mezzanine, Palm Lounge and Broadway Room as well as the hotel's lower level. All are for sale from as little as $200 to a high of about $40,000.
"I think it's a great idea for the hotel and for the people who stay here," says Bel, who with his wife, Ida Albo, bought the hotel with a silent partner in 1993. "I like the finer things in life. Art is one of those finer things. It's also about Winnipeg artists and showing local talent."
Art hotels have become trendy, as travellers have tired of the same old places and crave new experiences. Contemporary art possesses a value-added cachet that appeals to hoteliers and attaches an edgier personality to their business. At the very least, art is a great conversation-starter for guests.
The mandate for Hewak, who used to own Winnipeg's Cream Gallery, was to bring in artwork and artistry as one would in any home. That makes her a high-end interior decorator who has to make sure the art doesn't clash with the architectural harmony of the 240-room hotel.
It's all about complementing, not competing, she says.
"The work can't be too anything," says Eakin, one of the city's most accomplished artists. "It can't be too jarring or too nude because of this being a hotel."
Eakin and Love are sitting in a waiting room just off the revolving-door entrance. The focus of the room is the view of the bustling lobby until attention is drawn to a newly hung Rocan oil painting called Gazing into Gaia. It is a large, colourful piece with layers of images that reward contemplation.
Artists love the idea of non-gallery types getting an accidental close encounter with their work.
"I enjoy people looking at art when they are not in the looking mood," says Eakin, who in 2012 teamed with Hewak for a gallery show called Ephemera that explored found objects. "So when someone I see walking by a work of art stops to look, that's kind of special.
"If my work can hold its own in the real world; not be cancelled out or disappear, that's good."
It was once determined that each piece of art in a museum receives 13 seconds of attention from each patron, says Love, so there is more value to artists if their works can grab awareness outside of a gallery.
"It's another opportunity to present our art to people who wouldn't normally be exposed to it," says Eakin, who won the $30,000 Manitoba Arts Award of Distinction in 2009.
"Not everyone goes to art galleries and museums. If there was a ball team from Morden here for a weekend tournament, it may be, for some of them, the first time they've had direct experience with a work of art. That could be significant to that person."
The genesis of Art at the Fort Garry, which is planning a formal launch in early October, was Hewak, Eakin, Love and Eyland meeting regularly at the hotel's spectacular Palm Lounge. One suggested the room would look even better if the hotel art was replaced with real art. They were pleasantly surprised when Bel agreed to allow the hotel walls to serve as a gallery for local artists.
The four, whose collective is called Z-r'0, started with the Palm Lounge and found there were only four spaces available to hang their work in the circular room. Their mini-show that went up last December was called How I Learned to Love the Palm, and in each piece was an interpretation of the Palm Lounge, including Rotunda, Eakin's photograph of the ceiling taken with a fisheye lens.
"It looks like a jewel or a medal," says Hewak, who photographed the chandelier, and noting its resemblance to Sputnik -- the Russian satellite launched in 1957-- called it Soyuz 1. "It gets a strong, positive reaction from guests."
How I Learned to Love the Palm was so well received that Hewak gained quick approval to put up art all over the hotel, even in low-traffic hallways. Depending on the customer feedback, Manitoba art might be hung inside the guest rooms.
Hewak doesn't think she will having any trouble enticing local artists to contribute their work.
"I definitely jumped at the chance to do it," says Love. "I love this building. I'm from Winnipeg. You grow up with this place in some kind of way, whether going to weddings or graduations. My grandfather used to have a band and played here at weddings. My great-grandfather was the head chef here back in the '30s. This place means something to me."