All hotels have art on their walls. Some hotels have really good art. One hotel provides such an immersive experience that guests feel like they’re in a living, breathing, work of art.
Because they are.
That hotel is Saint Kate.
Named for Saint Catherine of Bologna, the Patron Saint of the Arts, Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel is more than just a place to stay. One step inside this downtown Milwaukee hotel, and your senses are engaged, enchanted, embraced.
The hotel is the vision of Greg and Linda Marcus, and it’s truly a labor of love. I had the privilege of attending the grand opening and staying a night and I cannot overstate this:
Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel is far more than a hotel. It is an experience.
Why is this hotel different? Why is it more than just a bed, a nightcap in the evening, a cup of coffee when you wake?
In short: art. is. everywhere.
It’s not simply art that hangs on walls or sits on a pedestal, although there’s plenty of both, and the curation of those media alone is award-worthy.
It’s also the art that you hear, that you touch, and, with their black box theater, with which you interact. Art that fills a space. Your space.
Full disclosure: I was invited to attend the Grand Opening of Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel and stay a night. All opinions are my own and totally influenced by the art that’s everywhere.
Shortly before my stay I’d visited both Taliesin and Taliesin West, and I’d recently toured Samara House in West Lafayette, Indiana. The more I got to know Saint Kate, the more I was reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright and his skill at purposely moving people through his designs.
His artistry manipulates your interaction.
Saint Kate does the same. Walk into the lobby and you’re invited, nearly forced, to stop and take notice of your surroundings. It’s a Pachinko ricochet of look here no here no there.
And yet, it’s cohesive. Complementary.
There are more than one hundred works of art, selected by Linda Marcus; Russell Bowman, former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Curator Maureen Ragalie, a Milwaukee native who managed contemporary collections in several New York galleries. Wisconsin and Midwestern artists are represented among their peers from around the country, chosen because of how they fit into the larger narrative of the contemporary art world.
The art is thoughtful and thought-provoking. While you could appreciate each piece for its aesthetics, you’re also given the opportunity to engage, to think.
The experience begins at your entrance to the hotel. Big Piney, a life-size horse sculpture, dominates the area in front of reception. Made of cast bronze, artist Deborah Butterfield shaped the horse out of found tree branches. She then cast the sculpture with bronze and the wood disappeared, making it a ghost of the original sculpture.
Above the couches near the bar is a striking photograph of a strong African American woman. Artist Mickalene Thomas co-ops the poses used to portray men in power. Instead, she showcases black women claiming their own power. Even the decor in the photograph is intentional; it’s set in the 1970s to evoke the Black Power Movement.
Checking in is a delight. There’s a collection of records, available for the choosing because every room has a record player. The room keys are designed by artists, and each guest receives a “Staybill” to help you navigate the hotel. Inside the Staybill, every employee, including the staff in the restaurants and housekeeping, is listed by name.
While waiting for the elevator, you might notice there are etchings on each of the tiles around the base of the bar. The numbers indicate the color; the tiles are cast from leftover material from Kohler.
Inside the elevator? Art.
Then you get to your floor. If you’ve seen the other floors as passengers get on or off, you might have noticed the art is different on each one, and that a different medium is represented. On our floor hung a canvas painted over and over with the word “blank.” (Bah dum bum.)
You’ll also see a photograph of a hand. It’s calloused, and it might have cuts and blisters. That’s the hand of a construction worker who built the hotel, forming the floor number in American Sign Language.
Outside your room is a clipboard. Look around. Each clipboard has a different saying.
Inside – you might think that this is where they could relax a little bit, go with the standard fixtures and linens etc etc.
Not a chance.
The sink and the bed scarf are signed by the artists. Take a look at the lampshade. Get close to the dancer etched in tiles in the shower. The hair dryer bag was designed by an artist. The sink. Open the closet, see a tree, a gift designed to help you calm down at the end of a busy day. All signed.
On the chair a ukulele begs to be played, and on the table colored pencils and butcher block paper or a journal wait for you to create. There are records in case you didn’t pick any during check-in, and an array of locally produced snacks and drinks.
Can you see why I love this place?
Maybe you’re staying in one of the Canvas Rooms. These are pure strokes of brilliance. The Marcus’ picked five artists, gave them each a room, and let them do what they do best. Spending a night in one of those rooms is literally sleeping in a work of art.
Unless you’re in the Leopard Room. I met the artist, Lon Michels, and mentioned that when I saw the photos I thought it would be impossible to sleep in that cacophony.
“You’re not supposed to sleep in it, darling.”
It’s a riot of color and texture that somehow works. I was enraptured. Linda said there was a 98% margin of error, and somehow Michels squeaked in that 2%. Barely.
Whether you sleep or not, you’ll rest easy knowing that if you stay in one of the Canvas Rooms, a portion of the proceeds is donated to non-profit arts organizations.
Back down to the second floor. You can get a bite in the open and airy Aria and have some bubbly at Giggly, Milwaukee’s only champagne bar. Before you go, peek behind the bookshelf. Ah, there’s a speakeasy! T.D.R. – The Dark Room – channels the photographic arts with its dim lighting and deep red interior.
While you’re up there, step into The Closet and see what the featured artist has done with the small exhibition space. Stroll the halls, paying particular attention to the corner.
Now take the stairs to the first floor. As you do, look up to see Plume 02. This is the only permanent work of art that was created specifically for the hotel; all other pieces had to already exist.
Artist Jason S. Yi was given three constraints: it must meet their budget, must not block the sprinkler heads, and if it falls, it can’t kill anyone. Yi transformed insulation foam and giant toothpicks into a silver gray plume meant to represent the smoke from North Korean missile launches.
You hear musicians fine-tuning their craft. Maybe somebody’s playing the piano. An opera singer is in full voice. A singer-songwriter performs acoustically.
There are two side-by-side galleries. The Gallery is a traditional white cube space. MOWA | DTN is an extension of The Museum of Wisconsin Art.
They’re next to each other, but the exhibitions are done separately so they don’t cross-pollinate. And yet, The Gallery’s opening exhibit by Lisa Beck is about how the eye works and how we see things. MOWA’s exhibit displays how an artist sees Milwaukee.
Because that’s how art works.
The MOWA exhibit features ten Milwaukee artists who were invited to create work that, to them, meant “downtown.” These depictions feature no tourist attractions. No iconic art museum. No well known edifices.
One is of a man picking up trash. Another is a postcard rack, with photos free for the taking.
In the back room hang Brema Brema’s hauntingly beautiful photographs. A professor recognized the young African immigrant as the best person he knew to capture downtown.
Incredibly, his photos had never been printed prior to this exhibition. He couldn’t afford it. And when they were selecting the photos, he said, “I hope to be an artist someday.”
Someday is here.
Exiting MOWA | DTN means entering The Space. It’s a place for large-scale site specific installations. At opening, Lon Michels had filled it with a piece called Downtown Ladies, a study in gender issues.
A walk down the hall back to the lobby is lined with more art, and along the way you’ll pass The Arc Theatre. ARCo, the resident theater company of performers, is an ensemble of actors, dancers, musicians, acrobats, comedians, and jugglers, and they are actually employees of the hotel.
Back in the lobby you notice a payphone outside MOWA. You pick up the handset and are treated to poetry.
Then you look down a hall and see what looks like a cigarette machine. Instead of dispensing smokes, it dispenses art.
Art is everywhere. It is simply everywhere. It’s like you’re wrapped up in a collage, a multi-dimensional, multi-media collage.
Do me a favor. Go. Stay. Immerse yourself at Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel.