The hallmark of a decent hotel used to be comfy mattresses, clean bathrooms and maybe a nice brunch. If there was art on the walls it was most likely an inoffensive landscape and you weren’t meant to notice it for more than a second.
But that all started to change about two decades ago as hotels began offering more arts experiences for visitors, propelled in part by the rise of Airbnb, which launched in 2007 as an alternative to traditional lodgings. When two Toronto hotels, the Gladstone House and the Park Hyatt Toronto, reopened their doors this fall after major renovations, visual art served as more than just their marketing calling cards; it’s drawing in culture-loving locals.
The Gladstone is a pioneering force, proving that if there’s art they will come.
When Christina Zeidler and her family took over the Parkdale mainstay in 2005, it was with a vision of turning the historic Queen West property into a hub for arts programming. Under Zeidler’s watch, the stately Romanesque Revival brick building became a cultural mainstay, hosting book launches, exhibitions, Pride parties and the popular alternative design fest Come Up to My Room.
When the Zeidlers sold the property in 2020 to Streetcar Developments and Dream Unlimited, owners of the east-end Broadview Hotel, it was with a promise that local arts would continue to be a focus (and that Miss Moço’s popular weekly Drag Brunch would not sashay away). That vision was realized under the leadership of exhibitions director Lee Petrie, who has been with the city’s oldest operating hotel since 2018.
“We have artists engaged in the project who literally live two blocks from here,” Petrie said.
If you have never been to the Gladstone Hotel — which has reverted back to its original name, the Gladstone House — you wouldn’t miss the massive check-in desk that once dominated the front lobby. Most likely your attention would be drawn upwards to the ceiling mural, “Love & Above” by Bryan Espiritu. The Toronto artist uses his own typographic language, which hearkens back to the bold lines of Keith Haring or Basquiat, to send words of peace and calm to those who stand below. It took Espiritu 21 days on a scissor lift to complete his 13,000-character message with paint marker.
“It’s his own story, but I love the idea that this one story makes you think about all of the other stories contained in the world,” said Petrie at the start of our tour. “It makes you wonder what’s going to happen while you’re here. How are you contributing to this story?”
There isn’t a dedicated gallery in the hotel, the fun comes from finding art wherever you turn, starting with a rotating piece above the lobby fireplace. Kicking off the relaunch is a unique self-portrait by photographer Sage Szkabarnicki-Stuart, adorned in plastic-cutlery armour, flanked by two swans.
Take some time in the stairwells to explore the beauty in Kristin Sjaarda’s photos, inspired by 17th-century Dutch Golden Age still-life paintings. To create these painterly masterpieces, Sjaarda, who lives nearby, sets up flower arrangements in the warm natural light of her own home, accompanied by specimens borrowed from the Royal Ontario Museum.
Originally, the Gladstone’s basement wasn’t open to the public, but it now serves many purposes, including as a studio for an artist-in-residence, currently Amanda McCavour, who creates intricate tapestries using live flora. The washrooms have moved down here, too, anchored by an LED-neon illustration of the building by Kal Honey. The Instagram-bait design also serves as a promotional image on cans of English pale ale made by Henderson Brewing.
Much of the art though is reserved for guest rooms. Eventually all will feature a unique work, commissioned through a juried call that attracted applications from more than 400 artists. Textile artist Jen Arron’s massive wall hanging “Sawyer Sunset,” named after the Algonquin Park lake, is a showstopper. It covers the entire ceiling above a king-sized bed in meandering shades of rose, black and cream wool, dripping in places like cave stalactites. While Lee says it was a labour of love hanging the heavy piece on a lift, I imagine sleeping in that room would feel like lying under the sky as dusk transitions to night.
“The only downside to having incredible artwork in all of the rooms is that you don’t get to see it lot of it,” said Petrie, who ensures that the work is promoted on Instagram (@gladstonehouseto) for those who want a peek.
Even before you walk into the Park Hyatt Toronto in Yorkville, you will find a massive bronze sculpture by Toronto-based An Te Liu. Shaped like two hollowed-out architectural pods, there is something organic in the curved shapes that begs to be touched.
“Art is a strong pillar of the Park Hyatt brand,” said Bonnie Strome, the hotel’s general manager. “It’s intentional that art has been such a focus with the design of the hotel and there’s a lot of emphasis on the art program throughout.”
The tour starts immediately inside with Canadian-born Shannon Bool’s massive five-by-seven-metre jacquard tapestry in the lobby. Bool’s models, who appear to be posing for a fashion show, are depicted as angular figures struck by a Brutalist Medusa.
Strome says Bool’s piece began as a digital photo of mannequins on a runway and serves as a nod to the neighbourhood’s fashionable reputation.
There are also nods to natural Canadiana throughout the hotel, from the earthy colour palette inspired by Group of Seven landscapes to first-edition books on display by famous past regulars, such as Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood, and the Douglas Coupland collage triptych in the swanky rooftop Writers Room bar.
Inside Joni, the open lobby restaurant, you’ll find a mini rotating exhibition from the Gardiner Museum in glass vitrines, starting with “Fable,” Nurielle Stern’s organic, mythical porcelain creatures, which subtly glow thanks to the small pieces of stained glass fused inside these delightful sinewy forms.
Over the fireplace, Sobey Art Award winner Nadia Myre’s ceramic curtain features more than 12,000 beads. The pattern is inspired by the Dish with One Spoon wampum belt, which is, ironically, housed across the street at the Royal Ontario Museum. Myre, an Algonquin member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, reminds us of the meaning behind the Indigenous law that calls for mutual respect and sharing of the land.
“We want people to enjoy wandering through the hotel and have experiences with the artwork, recognize these artists and the thoughtfulness that has gone into these works,” said Strome. “The hotel’s been completely transformed, but the essence of the old space and definitely the soul is still there.”