Art isn’t just for decoration. The provocative pieces at the Alfond Inn will make you think as well as look. And that’s the whole idea behind this word-class contemporary collection.
Hotel art usually isn’t thought-provoking. In fact, it’s typically selected less for its aesthetic value and more for its compatibility with the surrounding décor.
Not so at the Alfond Inn, where the art displayed in public spaces — even in the restrooms — often challenges and frequently confounds hotel guests.
Which is precisely the idea.
The 112-room boutique hotel, owned by Rollins College and completed in 2013, serves two purposes. It provides upscale lodging and meeting space in a market where both had been lacking. Plus, for all practical purposes, it’s a high-profile satellite location for the eclectic Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
The Cornell, tucked on the campus overlooking Lake Virginia, was for years an under-the-radar cultural treasure. But its undeserved obscurity began to change in 2012 with the arrival of Ena Heller, a Romanian emigrant with a Ph.D. in art history who was previously founding director of the Museum of Biblical Art in New York.
“The Alfond was a game changer for the Cornell,” says Heller, now entering her fourth year as the museum’s director. “It’s made us part of the broader community in a way we never were before. Now we’re really almost a two-venue museum.”
The pieces on display are part of the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, named for Ted and Barbara Lawrence Alfond, both 1968 Rollins graduates. The Alfonds, through the charitable foundation established by Ted’s late father, Harold, provided a $12.5 million gift to jump-start construction of the hotel.
The operation now generates about $3 million annually in net income, all of which goes to the Harold Alfond Scholarship Fund. That arrangement will continue for 25 years, or until the fund’s endowment reaches $50 million.
(The elder Alfond, founder of the Dexter Shoe Co., was a generous Rollins donor, particularly to the athletic department. Alfond Stadium at Harper Shepherd Field, where the Tars play baseball, is named for him. The family name is also on the Harold & Ted Alfond Sports Center, which encompasses the gymnasium, as well as the Alfond Boathouse and the Alfond Swimmng Pool.)
In addition to providing startup capital for the hotel, the Alfonds, with the assistance of private curator Abigail Ross Goodman, assembled a world-class collection of contemporary art and donated it to the college.
The Alfond acquisitions then became part of the Cornell’s permanent collection.Thus far, the couple has given the college more than 260 pieces, about 140 of which adorn the hotel’s walls at any given time.
“Adorn,” though, is almost certainly not the right word. Unquestionably much of the collection is visually pleasing, even to the untrained eye. None of it, however, was meant to be merely decorative. Some of the pieces are decidedly puzzling, while others are downright provocative.
“These works were intentionally acquired to have a teaching purpose,” says Heller. “It’s a collection with a point of view. It’s about issues our students will be confronted with.”
The “visual syllabus,” as Goodman has dubbed it, revolves around such topics as war, censorship, critical thinking and relationships between different cultures and religious traditions. There are prints, paintings and photographs, as well as many pieces where words rather than images convey the message.
“With this collection, artists expect viewers to participate,” Heller adds. “A number of the pieces are conceptual. So the more you know about them, the more you appreciate them.”
Heller, who says her involvement with the Alfond Collection has enhanced her own appreciation for contemporary art, enjoys discussing the pieces on display. Her scholarly yet accessible explanations evoke many “oh, now I get it” moments from viewers more comfortable with representational art.
The hotel was designed with art displays in mind. “To create a focus on the artwork, we used a very neutral field of finishes, and special lighting was selected,” says Monte Olinger, an interior designer and principal at Baker Barrios Architects.
Subtle nods to the peacock, Winter Park’s official bird, are also in evidence, including teal accents and plumage motifs. “Inspiration for the color palette draws from peacock feathers with elements used strategically to warm and enhance the palette,” Olinger explains.
From her home in Massachusetts, Barbara Alfond says the collection was conceived “to further the understanding of the hotel being a part of an educational institution.” She’s proud of the fact that classes in subjects other than art — including women’s studies — have used the collection to supplement the curriculum.
The Alfonds have been voracious but discerning collectors since 1976. However, when they first began acquiring art, they concentrated on 19th-century American works. Now they’re buying more contemporary pieces specifically for the college. “This has become a passion for us,” Alfond says.
Some works are in storage and others are displayed at the on-campus facility. Most, at some point, will ultimately wind up at the hotel, since each spring many of the pieces are rotated out and replaced.
“We felt that contemporary art is what young people relate to today,” says Alfond, who wrote the foreword for the first of two hardbound books, Art for Rollins Volume I and Art for Rollins Volume II, dedicated to documenting the art and profiling the artists. “Contemporary art was a deficiency in the Cornell collection. So that was an area where we thought we could help.”
Even prior to the Alfond infusion, the Cornell boasted the region’s only “encyclopedic” collection. For example, it’s the only museum in Central Florida to own works by Europe’s Old Masters.
“But now,” Heller says, with a hint of satisfaction, “we also have the best contemporary art collection in town.”
Like many museums, the Cornell is able to display only a tiny fraction of its 5,000-plus objects. Its holdings encompass more than 500 paintings, some dating from the 14th century; 1,600 prints, drawings and photographs; and thousands of objects, artifacts and archaeological fragments from around the world.
The museum’s on-campus facility is small relative to the size of its collection, and parking can be vexing (although the SunTrust parking garage on Lyman Avenue is only a five-minute walk away).
Still, Heller notes that the museum has enjoyed a 50 percent increase in visitors, in part because admission is free, subsidized by Dale Montgomery, a 1960 Rollins graduate who majored in studio art. (Montgomery, a frequent visitor to the campus, retired after a long career at New York-based McMillen Inc., the oldest continuously operated interior design firm in the U.S.)
Museum attendance has also been bolstered by guests of the hotel. Each room has a rack card featuring directions to the museum, as well as instructions on how to take an audio tour of the hotel’s art using a mobile device.
In addition, guided group tours of the Alfond collection are offered every Friday at 1 p.m., and “Happy Hour” tours are offered the first Wednesday of each month at 5:30 p.m. The tours — which are usually conducted by the Cornell’s in-house curator, Amy Galpin — are free of charge and no reservations are required.
Many Happy Hour-tour attendees choose to remain at the hotel for a glass of wine or dinner at Hamilton’s Kitchen, its award-winning restaurant. Many others, their curiosity piqued, eventually make their way to the Cornell to see what’s on display there.
It’s all very symbiotic and, to Heller, very heartening. “We’re always looking for ways to become a more integral part of Rollins and expand its boundaries in the community,” she says. “This partnership has allowed us to do both.”