Leopard spots — thousands of them, in a multitude of colors and sizes — cover just about every nook and cranny of one of the 219 guest rooms in Milwaukee’s new Saint Kate hotel, opening Tuesday.
“You have to sign a waiver that if you stay in this room and nine months later you have a child covered in leopard spots, we’re not responsible,” joked Lon Michels, the Wisconsin artist behind the room’s unorthodox, Instagram-darling design.
The Leopard Room’s anything-goes aesthetic is just one sign that this hotel is of a different stripe. Occupying a downtown building that used to be the InterContinental, Saint Kate takes the concept of an “arts hotel” and kicks it up a notch or 20.
To wit: It boasts its own theater troupe, an ensemble cast of actors, dancers, musicians, jugglers and more. They’ll put on plays and other shows at the hotel’s 90-seat Arc Theatre, but these artists-in-residence will also do pop-up performances around the property. Local filmmakers, comedians and the like will occasionally take the stage for ticketed events at the black box theater as well. In the bar or lobby, patrons might encounter a band rehearsal or interpretive dance or stumble upon a different artistic surprise.
“The idea is kind of like a fine arts Disney World,” said Saint Kate’s programming director, John Price, a jazz musician originally from Chicago’s Hyde Park.
On Tuesday evenings, Price can be found playing the bass at the Pfister, another downtown Milwaukee hotel with an extensive, but more traditional, art collection. He performs alongside pianist Greg Marcus, the president and CEO of Marcus Corporation, whose portfolio includes hotels and resorts — The Pfister and Saint Kate among them — along with hundreds of movie theaters across the Midwest.
The company “has always been rooted in that intersection of business and the arts,” Greg Marcus said during a recent preopening tour of the property at 139 E. Kilbourn Ave. While he talked, construction crews buzzed up and down the 10-story building as sculptures, paintings and tapestries were being dispatched to their new homes under the watchful eye of Saint Kate curator Maureen Ragalie.
“I didn’t want it to be a marketing gimmick,” Marcus said about Saint Kate’s art collection, much of which was sourced by his wife, fashion designer and former “Project Runway” contestant Linda Marcus.
More than 100 contemporary works make up the inventory of permanent pieces, including a print by Damien Hirst and one of Deborah Butterfield’s skeletal horse sculptures that anchors the spacious lobby.
“I wanted it to be art that we found, art that spoke to us,” Greg Marcus said, “not art made for the hotel.”
Marcus’ team visited dozens of art-focused hotels over the past four years, trying to fine-tune their vision for Saint Kate, named for the patron saint of artists, St. Catherine of Bologna.
“We thought, ‘What if we included the performing arts?’” Marcus said. “It made perfect sense; we’re sitting among a lot of the city’s performing arts venues — The Rep (Milwaukee Repertory Theater), Pabst, Marcus Center.”
In addition to the Arc Theatre, the hotel houses an outpost of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, or MOWA, a 1,700-square-foot gallery with rotating, professionally curated exhibits that are free and open to the public.
The first one, titled “Downtown,” features works depicting Wisconsin’s largest city through the lens of 10 artists. It includes a phone booth installation where people can listen to more than a dozen poems by Milwaukee poets and the photographs of a Sudan-born immigrant getting his first museum show.
“We wanted to connect with new and emerging artists,” said Laurie Winters, executive director of MOWA in West Bend, Wis. “We like the idea of having a museum in the middle of Milwaukee’s art and cultural district. It’s an unprecedented partnership between a hotel and a museum.”
In the culinary arts arena, the hotel lays claim to having the city’s sole Champagne bar, a pizza joint whose oven imported from Italy can cook a pie in 90 seconds, and a 26-seat, speakeasy-style steakhouse (opening later this month), among other spots to wine and dine.
Local artists and makers helped influence the look of the guest rooms, starting at about $299 a night, on average. Their work can be seen in everything from the bed scarves and lamp shades to the bathrooms’ shower tile, custom-designed Kohler sinks and handmade bars of soap shaped like erasers.
Five of the rooms, including the colorful Leopard Room, are one-of-a-kind dwellings each designed by a different artist. A small upcharge is tacked on for these rooms, with a portion of the revenue getting donated to arts-related nonprofit organizations.
All guest rooms come equipped with a record player and ukulele, as well as a roll of butcher paper and colored pencils, just in case the surroundings inspire guests. And the hope is they will.
“Anyone can see finished art; we want people to experience the process,” said Erin Levzow, vice president of marketing for Marcus Hotels & Resorts. “The room needs to be restful but also be a place where you can create.”