It’s not quite the Batphone, but when Jennifer Phelps’s cell phone rings, a shot of adrenaline jolts the 40-something curator. It could be her boss, the eccentric hotel mogul, art collector, and world traveler Ralph Burnet. Perhaps he has just shipped her a new acquisition—say, a 19-foot-wide kaleidoscope of colored pens and pencils by Hong Kyoung Tack. Now, Phelps must find a place to put it.
It’s all just part of the job for the staff curator at Le Méridien Chambers Minneapolis, touted as America’s first “luxury art hotel,” where guests eat, sleep, and bathe among some 200 pieces from Burnet’s renowned private collection. There’s a desiccated bull’s head behind the front desk (“Judas Iscariot” by Damien Hirst), a pair of hyper-realistic cavemen giants standing just beyond the elevators (“Riesen” by Martin Honert), and video installations hanging in the public restrooms.
Phelps is in charge of it all, as well as the programming in the hotel’s gallery. On the eve of the Chambers’s fifth anniversary next month, we ask Phelps about her duties.
What’s on your to-do list this week?
I have to take down the current show in the gallery and deliver all of the artwork that sold. I have a couple of artist studio visits scheduled. Then I have to install the new show—which means I first have to paint and spackle the gallery. Thursday night I’ve got an arts fundraiser. Friday is the gallery opening. And then Saturday, some people from MoMA [New York’s Museum of Modern Art] will be here, so I’ll have dinner with them and give them a tour of the hotel. So not a lot of rest.
You have to re-paint for every show?
Yup. There’s five years—and 30 coats—worth of paint in there.
What’s the newest addition to the hotel?
The art portal. It’s the visual gateway into the hotel; the crossover from the mundane of the street into the art experience. [Minneapolis artist] Sonja Peterson put this cut-vinyl, jungle landscape onto the glass of the entryway. It feels like you’re in the Amazon. We even pipe in a soundscape of birds chirping.
Contemporary art can sometimes upset people. Do guests ever get offended by the stuff in the hotel?
It doesn’t happen as often as I thought it would. Once in a while someone will say something like, “Oh, I could make that.” And my response is, “Let’s have a conversation about that.”
Which piece tends to draw the biggest reaction?
I’d say the Gavin Turk [a sensationally realistic, solid bronze sculpture of garbage bags]. People think, “What kind of hotel leaves trash in the hallway?” And they’ll call the front desk to complain. Or they try to move it. Or they try to put their garbage on top of it. But when they find out it’s a piece of artwork they start laughing. They run over to check it out again. It’s art that doesn’t look like art.
Also, Honert’s “Riesen” (German for “Giants”) are a magnet. They just suck people down the hallway. Guests start feeling smaller and smaller as the giants get bigger and bigger. It’s probably the hotel’s most popular piece. It reminds people of childhood. Some people think that they came out of the Boundary Waters.
You worked previously at the Walker. What’s the biggest difference between hanging art in a museum and hanging art in a hotel?
There’s more freedom in a hotel. In a museum, there’s usually an alarm or a rope or some kind of barrier between you and the artwork. The guards keep an eye on you. Here, we try to allow immediate access to the art. People dine right next to it. They sleep in the same room with it. It’s in the bathrooms. You have to get rid of the feeling that the art is so precious.
Interested in the Chambers’s collection? Ask for an “art map” at the front desk and guide yourself through the public spaces. Or call 612-767-6824 to arrange a tour with Phelps.
Gregory J. Scott is Minnesota Monthly’s staff writer.