During the coronalockdowns, city centers had died out, museums were closed and hotels were empty. The Canal House Suite at hotel The Grand was perhaps the only hotel room in Amsterdam where a guest stayed every week in 2021. 52 artists, from painters to photographers and from sculptors to writers, were each allowed to stay in the luxury room for a week. For example, the ‘Artists in Residence’ suite produced a new piece of art each week. Now, a year later, these works are on display in The Grand.
Author Ivo Weyel is the initiator of the Artists in Residence project and the exhibition. ‘During the pandemic, many artists were unable to work. Hotels were allowed to stay open now and then, but few travelers came. 1 and 1 became 2.’ Weyel called Emmy Stoel, director of the five-star hotel The Grand. Chair didn’t have to think long about Weyel’s suggestion: ‘The Grand has a rich history with pioneering artists such as painters Karel Appel and Chris LeBeau. But the current generation of artists and future artists were not yet present at the hotel.’
When he entered the hotel, painter Frank Willems (34) quickly caught sight of Karel Appel’s mural: ‘The story of Question children hit me.’ Appel made the painting in 1948 for the town hall to pay off a debt. Children are depicted in primary colors on the wall at the entrance to the restaurant. ‘He saw those children when he passed German stations by train in the post-World War II era. He saw the consequences of the financial crisis: beggar children with poor health.’ Willems put a contemporary interpretation of the work on canvas: The Train of Redemption. ‘The story that Appel has depicted is timeless. That’s why I reacted to it in my own way.’
Willems’ work shows children on a train on their way to a better world. They look outside and see the children left behind. Will they ever see those kids again? Willems emphasizes that this is not a story from the past. “Look, for example, at the war in Ukraine. People flee, people stay. People are lucky or unlucky. There are people who survive and people who die. The contrasts are great.’
When visual artist Didi Lehnhausen (29) stayed at The Grand in April 2021, it was in the middle of a lockdown. As the only guest, she could roam endlessly through the hotel’s corridors. “It was so empty that I started to imagine who used to walk around.” Amsterdam’s city hall was located in the building between 1652 and 1656 and between 1808 and 1988. Lehnhausen decided to focus on the political history of the walls, which she found between that week.
‘Every day I spoke to someone else, from the janitor to the director,’ says Lehnhausen. She heard about the time when the building was a monastery, about the weddings that took place in the town hall and about the mural Question children by Karel Appel. ‘The abundance of stories was the inspiration for the work I did: Letters to Karel.’ In the fictional correspondence, Lehnhausen and Appel discuss the history of the hotel. On the back she drew a map with all the details that caught her eye between and on the walls. The Javanese batik style and Indian stone floor in the lobby reminded her of colonial administrators who once walked the corridors. ‘I saw all the layers of history in The Grand that no one tells the same story about. There are facts, of course, but everything around them is filled in by the narrator. The story is not clear cut.’
‘I can’t afford to stay at The Grand. Still, for a week I was part of the group of luxury hotel guests that I had around me all the time.’ The writer Babah Tarawally (50) stayed in the Artist in Residence suite at the end of August 2020. It was the summer of the Field Lab experiments, Testing for Access and ‘dancing with Jansen’. It was allowed to travel again, the hotels were full.
Tarawally focused less on the history of the building and more on everyday reality. He tasted the atmosphere and analyzed the behavior of the hotel’s visitors. ‘I saw people sitting alone with a laptop on their lap. It reminded me of African and Caribbean stories about the spider Anansi. Anansi is clever, he makes his web and waits for the flies to fly into it. Then he goes to eat and then he waits again. He does not work hard, but with maximum output.’
In the suite, Tarawally was working on a children’s book about Anansi’s individualistic lifestyle, in which he recognizes a Western way of life. The book is a plea to crawl out of your cobwebs and look for a ‘we’. ‘If you walk out of the portico of The Grand, you end up in the mass of the city. And what do you do?’
Hotel The Grand also has a public function, according to director Emmy Stoel: ‘The Grand is a luxury hotel, but also the former city hall of Amsterdam. That’s why we want to keep the exhibition accessible to everyone.’ The 52 works of art can be viewed for free until 20 November. Following the sales exhibition, a selection of 14 works of art will be auctioned online via auction house Christie’s. The profit goes to the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, to support artists who are having a hard time financially.