An artistic and collaborative spirit
“Hotels are community places and art offers an important expression of the community—one that has an innovative, creative and economic return,” says Katie Gass, founder of James Company and creator of the bespoke cultural art program at The Beekman in New York. Renowned for working with (and supporting) the most provocative artists of our time, Gass now brings the work of Jane Hammond, Patrick Jacobs, and Cathy Cone to invigorate downtown’s newest and most sophisticated meeting place. Each artist will respond to the literary history of the site—it was first public library in New York City—and to the local landscape of the East River, Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall park. Here, Gass shares how Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, A Dream Within A Dream, influenced each artist’s work (hint: there are French Alps and magical butterflies), her favorite young Italian photographer on the rise, and more.
Were you exposed to art as a child? If so, how so you think this has influenced your work?
My family spent a lot of time at museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art—an institution I’m still very involved with—and The American Museum of Natural History. I also grew up hiking in the woods and vacationing on the shores of New England, so my relationship with nature has informed my aesthetic sensibility as much as anything else. Later on, travels in Europe and the Middle East and a love of architecture have become important sources of inspiration also. It’s amazing to me how the smallest thing can inform a lifetime of aesthetic choices. Everyone now knows that Frank Gehry’s designs, for example, are informed by his childhood experiences studying the shiny gills of carp that his grandmother brought home from the fish monger and stored in the bathtub. Look at the output that experience has yielded and it has affected millions of people! John Dewey defined aesthetic experience as something that grips the senses and then imprints itself into the memory regardless of whether it is a beautiful artwork, tasting incredible food or a walking through a stunning park. For him it was all “art” and for me that’s it. This is why working with public spaces like hotels is such a joy because it’s an opportunity to engage all the senses.
Do you have an all-time favorite artist? If so, what keeps you continually drawn to his or her work?
That’s always an impossible question as there are so many decades, movements and mediums to choose from! I love photography and photojournalism. Favorites are early to mid 20th-century masters like Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Minor White, Robert Frank. American modernist painters like Marsden Hartley are lifetime favorites. But I am very engaged with video and projection, especially the work of Bill Viola, Jennifer Steincamp and Daniel Canogar, and other kinds of installation, particularly Jacob Hashimoto, who I am dying to collaborate with. I love the sound suits of Nick Cave and the sculptures of Nari Ward, who had an incredible exhibition at the Perez Art Museum in Miami last December that’s traveling now. There is always more to learn and see. What pulls me in or keeps me returning to an artist or artwork usually has to do with the sense of atmosphere they create through a combination of beauty, ingenuity, intellectual depth, and some other ineffable quality that is deeply felt.
What’s the philosophy behind James Company? And what is so special about your unique narrative art programs?
Our philosophy is about a love of creating community and supporting local cultural economies through art. It’s as much about celebrating the art and artist as it is about inviting in the art community into the project by employing framers, printers, art handlers and shippers (many of whom are often artists). Everyone involved is a collaborator in making a great art program for our clients. Supporting living artists is a primary drive. I have always said that hotels are community places and art offers an important expression of the community—one that has an innovative, creative and economic return. All the collections, art programs or exhibitions we’ve done reflect this philosophy in some way, and the clients we work with tend to be attracted to the same values. Perhaps what makes us unique is our ability to fold this philosophy into whatever the client brief requires to make a truly custom collection that reflects the beauty of the community in some way.
How do you find the artists that you include in your projects?
Traveling, visiting art fairs, museums, galleries, artists’ studios, pop ups, looking at street art, and murals and paying attention to innovative installations in unusual places.
Is there a theme for the art program at The Beekman?
The Beekman Art Collection is inspired by the literary history of the site when it was the Mercantile Library Exchange, which was the first public library in New York City. There is a nod to the transcendentalist writers who spoke and delivered their papers there, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The art collection is also inspired by the local landscape of the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall park. There is a reach back in time to honor the old (we have vintage images of the food carts of the lower east side), but with a contemporary, fresh twist. We’ve commissioned artists to make work that speaks directly to the site too. “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream,” Poe’s quote from his poem A Dream Within A Dream, informs much of the inventive artwork at the hotel. For instance, in Patrick Jacobs commissioned diorama pieces, we know we are looking at a fabricated landscape but yet we are willingly transported into it—almost as if there is a landscape growing behind the walls. Or Jane Hammond’s magical butterflies hovering over her handmade map of lower Manhattan, which are recreated from actual specimens but re-imagined with different antenna or colored spots, and in Sam Messenger’s drawings made in the French Alps with ink and snow…there is a romance and mystery to what we are seeing.
Is it true that Edgar Allen Poe used to work in the space? Has this informed the collection?
When I walked into The Beekman for the first time I felt many old ghosts. The building has such incredible romance, poetry and mystery. Poe lived a short and tragic, if romantic life. His time at the Mercantile Library Exchange was brief—just a year—but while he was there he purchased a newspaper called The Broadway Express and tried to make it work. Credited as the father of modern science fiction, Poe seems an appropriate inspiration for the hotel’s collection. We wanted to induce a bit of a dreamlike feel with the artwork, while also paying homage to the American literary history that is literally part of the history of this site.
How has the space itself inspired the collection?
The original Queen Anne architecture from the late 1800s and the amazing filagree and ironwork everywhere in the hotel are remarkable! The soaring atrium and the turrets really takes one’s breath away and reminds me of The Grand Palais in Paris. There is an affinity between the art and the architecture for sure, but rather than echo the detail in the architecture, the artwork is meant to add a layer of depth to the overall visual symphony.
Which three artists are creating site-specific works for The Beekman?
We commissioned Jane Hammond, Patrick Jacobs, and Cathy Cone to create new pieces for The Beekman.
What are your three favorite places to see art in the city?
Art is everywhere in New York and there are many incredible destinations so its difficult to chose only three places, but currently my favorites include The Studio Museum in Harlem (I cannot wait to see the new renovation by David Adjaye), The International Center of Photography downtown, and the very cool community of galleries on the Lower East Side, which is growing.
Is there one particular artist who should be on our radar right now so we can say we-knew-them-when?
Renato D’Agostin is a young Italian photographer who takes stunning stylized images using a Leica camera. I met him through my friends, curator Jennifer Tripp and her husband Mark Lubell, the Director of the International Center of Photography. The Beekman art collection has four gorgeous images we reprinted for the guest rooms, and one original photograph in the collection.