State of the "Art" Convention Centers

Originally published in Successful Meetings magazine, September 2007

Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon meandered through the exhibit, taking in photographs of The Beatles by acclaimed lensman Harry Benson. But it wasn't at a trendy gallery, or a downtown museum, it was at the Hot Springs Convention Center in Arkansas.

Stunned? You shouldn't be.

Convention centers around the country are incorporating gallery spaces in an effort to introduce meeting attendees to art from the area, encourage locals to visit the center, and beautify a space generally considered bland and unappealing.

Keep It Clean

At its core, all art is an attempt to come to terms with life's mysteries. With as many solutions to those questions as there are human beings, art is subjective and can be controversial, so centers have also found themselves in the awkward position of having to track down pieces that are compelling without being offensive.

"We don't want to compromise the photographers, but if they really want [something controversial] and we don't, we won't put up the exhibit. We're not censors by any means, but you have to walk that fine line, and we don't want to offend any of our clients and customers," explains Steve Arrison, executive director of the Hot Springs CVB, which operates the convention center.

That attitude prevails at most centers with an art component—artists are free to add whatever they wish, subject to final approval.

"Typically, we don't dictate the content of the art to the artists, but as far as it being a city space, we do have to maintain a level of decorum," says Julie Bilyea, arts coordinator for the city of Overland Park, KS. The Overland Park Convention Center is home to an extensive collection, and Bilyea believes that the convention center plays an important role in adding a cultural element to a meeting attendee's visit. "We want the arts to be something that people do not have to make a special trip to appreciate," she says.

"We know that when conventioneers are in town, their primary focus is to be at the facility conducting their business. We saw this as an opportunity to bring the culture and art to them," adds Randy Tanaka, assistant general manager of the Hawaii Convention Center, which is designed to evoke a "Hawaiian sense of place." But none of the centers with an art element have left their primary mission by the wayside to take a turn as a gallery.

"We're like most meeting facilities—we have to make our space work for groups. We can't have huge pieces that we need a forklift to move so we can put a bar in somewhere. [Art] can never get in the way of our mission, which is to take care of our meetings business," says Arrison.

The Hot Springs Convention Center is home to both a permanent collection and rotating exhibits, which have included Woodstock Vision: The Spirit of a Generation, by Elliot Landy, the official photographer of Woodstock; Portrait of an Era, Robert Altman's 1960s-era photography; and the current exhibit called The American Soldier, curated by Cyma Rubin, which displays more than 100 photographs of men and women in the armed forces, in images dating from the advent of photography.

"I think photographers like it because so many people come through a public facility who may be intimidated by museums or art galleries," says Arrison. Planners and meeting attendees have made it clear they love the exhibits. "It's gotten to the point now that a lot of our repeat clients will call and say, 'Hey, we're thinking about doing a meeting on these dates, what exhibit will you have up?' " says Arrison, adding that in at least one case, the center has moved the opening date of an exhibit forward, based on interest from an incoming group.

A to Z in WA

In Washington, planners tend to be unaware of the art prior to seeing the convention center. "When the meeting planners come for site visits early on, they are most often surprised to see the gallery spaces here," says Linda Willanger, director of corporate development for the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, in Seattle.

"We have had some groups ask for guided tours, which we can do easily," she says, although the center also makes a detailed self-guided walking tour brochure available to lead visitors through the six floors of permanent and rotating works. "We're not trying to be a museum; we just want to be a showcase for what visitors can see while they are here. We're kind of a sampling of Northwest art," says Willanger, who specifies that the convention center represents all of Washington, not just the Seattle area.

Apples to Zinfandel — Aberdeen to Zillah, the juried exhibit currently on display, is designed to drive home that point. The convention center partnered with the department of agriculture to highlight Washington's diverse agriculture and "to remind our citizens of the beauty across the entire state," says Willanger. "The rotating exhibits are fun, because they change every three months, and we can do about 125 works on our second level and we can actually do two shows simultaneously."

The permanent collection includes the Washington State Centennial Bell Garden, by David Mahler, comprising a bell from each of the state's 39 counties. A Jackie Ferrara, three-dimensional design called Meeting Place on the second floor combines a red, green, and black slate floor with steel and concrete benches and a platform. One of the convention center's most prominent pieces is Lebeg, by Ann Gardner, a hanging glass piece suspended four stories above the center's atrium floor that rotates slowly. The atrium is often used by groups for receptions and events, and various other gallery spaces around the facility accommodate groups of up to 500 for coffee breaks, receptions, or networking.

The collection is "a labor of love," says Willanger, as well as a mission. "We feel like it's our civic responsibility to offer these benefits. Art is such an important cultural piece if you have a place where people can go and enjoy it."

A Cultural Connection

Under Hawaii's Art in Public Places program, established in 1967, one percent of the construction cost of new public buildings must go toward procuring commissioned or purchased art. So for the Hawaii Convention Center, the decision was not whether to include art, but how best to display the pieces and to select works of significance from a cultural perspective. "We use the term 'a Hawaiian sense of place,' " explains Tanaka. The center's pieces were all commissioned for the building, and "all of the artists had some grounding in the state of Hawaii, whether through education in Hawaii, having lived here," or some other connection, he says.

Although many of the pieces are placed in alcoves where "you can actually touch almost everything," Tanaka says that most visitors are respectful, and, like well-behaved schoolchildren, do not touch the art. Certain pieces, including those on loan from Honolulu's Bishop Museum, are housed in humidity- and temperature-controlled cases, which keep visitors from touching them, but one is designed to attract all the attention it can: A replica of a lava flow is connected via the Internet to Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. "It has a backlit, almost neon light," says Tanaka, that flashes with every tremor felt at the park. "There are thousands of tremors every day, so it flickers all day," he says.

If These Walls Could Talk

In Hartford, CT, it was a museum that made the first move when the Wadsworth Atheneum—the country's oldest public art museum—contacted the Connecticut Convention Center about incorporating a display. The display highlights the history of the Hartford area, and comes primarily from Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, who amassed a personal collection of over 600 pieces, all of which she bequeathed to the Wadsworth Atheneum upon her death in 1905; pieces at the center include a portrait of her husband, Samuel Colt, who is best known for Colt firearms.

"It was hard for us, because our art is very expensive, but we wanted to do it," says Lee Oliver, group visit coordinator at the Wadsworth Atheneum, which is located about a block from the center. "We tried to pick works that are not easily damaged, and also some pieces that would allow people to see what we have to offer."

The resulting display, which is lit to the specifications of the Wadsworth, has been embraced by both incoming groups and area residents. "It was kind of a dead-end spot on the exhibition level, and this provided us an opportunity to do something interesting in it," says Katie Blint, communications director for the convention center. "When people come to events, they're looking for places to relax, and this is a quick getaway from the business at hand. It's refreshing to be surrounded by beautiful art in a small space within a larger building. And when there are no groups in, people come in with their newspapers and their coffee and just enjoy it."

The relationship between meeting attendees and the museum extends beyond the convention center's gallery, as Oliver reaches out to incoming groups with whom she foresees a fit. Oliver creates tours of displayed pieces that would be of particular interest to a visiting group, and is sometimes able to bring pieces out of storage to display, if she thinks a group might appreciate viewing the work. "We try to be proactive and be a good partner based on those things; it's about playing nicely with your neighbors," Oliver says.

The Wadsworth has, in fact, been proactive from the beginning—establishing the gallery at the center, setting up an area to distribute museum brochures, offering a discount to convention attendees, and advertising itself to conventioneers with a billboard-sized banner that reads: "Psst. There's another convention going on just around the corner. Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, and O'Keeffe . . . they're all here." The banner hangs off of a building owned by the Wadsworth and faces the convention center.

Midwestern Masterpiece

Art has been an important part of the Overland Park Convention Center since its construction, which was completed in 2002. The center now boasts a permanent collection of 100 pieces as well as a rotating gallery collection that generally includes on an annual basis one juried show, one purchased show, one show of artwork from schools, and two to three exhibits decided by the local Friends of the Arts. "We consider it an integral part of what we do here. Sometimes I refer to us as a museum," says Nadine Guest, general manager of the convention center.

The gallery corridor is used on occasion for receptions—"I'm kind of surprised it doesn't happen more often," says Guest—and the pre-function space that can accommodate a couple of hundred attendees includes a number of pieces as well. "You don't have to be in the corridor to appreciate the art," explains Guest.

Local artist and gallery owner Paul Dorrell was selected to consult on the project from the beginning. "Paul is a well-published art advocate who is always interested in seeing vibrant environments. He was the perfect person to oversee the installation," says Guest. "His concept was to use regional artists; he wanted to create a world-class-caliber collection, featuring Midwestern artists."

She notes that Dorrell believes people "are almost never indifferent to art," which lends vitality to the space. "We're proud of the fact that this kind of exceptional collection adds to the sophistication of our facility," says Guest. "We hope that planners will find this an added attraction when they advertise for people to come to meetings in our space."

It also serves as an excellent way to get the community to embrace a convention center. "A lot of the local population you'll never get into your facility," says Arrison from Hot Springs. "This introduces your facility to the citizens who have paid for it."