The $5-million art collection at the ultra-luxurious St Regis Singapore was put together by none other than Mrs Cecilia Kwek, wife of Hong Leong Group executive chairman Kwek Leng Beng, 67, who owns the hotel.
Choosing artworks for Singapore's six-star hotel in Tanglin Road turned into quite a labour of love for Mrs Kwek, who is herself a painter in her spare time.
In the process, the hotel, which officially opened last Sunday, has become a showcase not just of international works, but also of home-grown artistic talent.
Mrs Kwek, who declined to give her age, says: 'I want the identity of the hotel to emphasise Singapore art, which I think is very much overlooked here.
'At the moment, everybody is interested in Chinese contemporary art.'
Inside the hotel lobby are paintings by well-known first-generation Singapore artists such as Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen, one of Mrs Kwek's favourite artists.
|Mrs Cecilia Kwek's search for art pieces for St Regis Singapore began six years ago with an anonymous artist's painting titled A Gathering Of Immortals. Now, sculptures such as Columbian artist Fernando Botero's Dancing Nude Couple (above) and paintings of the late Chua Ek Kay take pride of place in the hotel.
Two large paintings by Henri Chen KeZhan - one of four artists who represented Singapore in the 2001 Venice Biennale - also take pride of place in the lobby.
And at the hotel entrance is Sense Surround, a series of red-painted steel sculptures, which local artist Anthony Poon worked on right until his death in 2006.
Mrs Kwek also commissioned works by other prominent local artists such as Ong Kim Seng and the late Chua Ek Kay.
'Ek Kay normally painted in colours that are delicate but he did add more colours for our paintings,' she says.
Mr Ong, who is renowned for his watercolours, tells Life! that 'Mrs Kwek herself being an art collector and artist was very kind to allow me to choose the subject I like'.
The acting deputy director of Singapore Art Museum's curation and collection department, Mr Low Sze Wee, says St Regis has 'quite an eclectic collection from sculptures to paintings, from local to European masters' that reflects the collector's taste.
What is significant is its big collection of local art and the prominence given to it, he says. 'They give a local identity to the place.'
He adds: 'Kudos to them for choosing somebody such as Lim Joo Hong, as he was an emerging local artist.'
Indeed, Mrs Kwek tells LifeStyle that for St Regis, 'I want to emphasise our local artists because Singapore is now a global city with an extremely vibrant and dynamic art, culinary and culture scene'.
Her curating for St Regis began 'about six years ago, when I knew this hotel is going to be on... I started looking for the paintings'.
The very first piece was a traditional Chinese painting, but she moved on to both local and international works.
She has gone to enormous lengths to secure a piece. For example, while in Tiffany & Co New York late last year, she saw two crystal carp by renowned architect Frank Gehry that she felt were perfect for St Regis Singapore.
The problem was, she wanted them shipped here within a week ahead of the hotel's soft-opening on Dec 20 last year - but the jewellery and silverware company does not provide courier services.
At one point, a Tiffany sales staff member suggested that Mrs Kwek hand-carry the US$20,000 (S$27,300) pair of carp back. It was an 'impossible task for me', recalls the astounded art lover.
So the intrepid Mrs Kwek walked along 5th Avenue, from 57th street to 55th street, to the legendary St Regis New York.
The St Regis Singapore is the 13th St Regis hotel in the chain since St Regis New York opened in 1904.
'I approached the general manager of St Regis there and told him I have a very urgent problem,' she recalls.
And the St Regis New York delivered the carp, now displayed at the hotel's entrance hallway, right on the eve of the opening.
Not just another painting
Apart from commissions, Mrs Kwek says she bought the hotel's artworks mainly from Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses.
The 299-room hotel also boasts works by big foreign names - sculptures by Fernando Botero and Zorach William, and prints by world-renowned artists such as Marc Chagall, Joan Miro and Robert Motherwell.
Each of these pieces - there are at least 70 - was carefully selected to complement different hotel spaces.
Mrs Kwek picked Taiwanese artist Li Chen's Float To Sukhavati, a 'very serene and whimsical' bronze sculpture, for the pool area to give guests a 'floating' feel when they are swimming.
For the gym entrance, she placed a Serra Rosa bronze sculpture of a weightlifter from the Spanish sculptor's Olympic Suite Series.
The presidential suite, where the going rate is $10,000 a night, has precious pieces such as a Sam Francis print in its huge bathroom and a Chagall print.
While she has no formal training, Mrs Kwek has been painting for 30 years now.
'When I paint, I paint with my heart. I won't part with my paintings.'
She recalls doing a painting of trees with a three-dimensional effect. 'It was on the floor and of all pieces, one of my dogs peed on it. It shows that it is very real.'
Mrs Kwek loves painting horses, a subject which gets the thumbs-up from her tycoon husband.
She continues to buy works for the hotel, many of which will be displayed on a rotating basis, and which are purchased with investment in mind. If it is an auction piece, she puts in a bid. If she does not get it at her price, she will walk away.
'There is no point being over-enthusiastic about a piece of art,' says this savvy collector.
Art in hotels
The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore
Art is everywhere in this hotel, thanks to a 4,200-piece contemporary art collection that boasts key artists from the Pop Art and Post Painterly Abstractionist period such as Sam Francis, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.
Owned by Pontiac Land, Ritz-Carlton opened in 1996 with a $5-million collection, of which 90 per cent was specially commissioned. Last year, the hotel started a self-guided podcast art tour of its collection, said to be among the finest corporate modern art collections in South-east Asia.
Conrad Centennial Singapore
Also owned by Pontiac Land, Conrad has an impressive Asian art collection valued at over
$6 million. There are more than 3,400 original works, including those from local artists such as Tay Bak Koi and Yeo Siak Goon, and Chinese artists such as Cheng Li and Lee May Fung.
The hotel also commissioned 13 paintings by final-year students of Lasalle College of the Arts. With the collection's theme being Asian, the works of international artists include symbols, icons or motifs that reflect this culture.
Marriott's collection comprises 93 pieces, many of which are by local artists such as Chen KeZhan and Jimmy Ong.
One of the pieces is Chen's 14.9m-wide brush-and-ink abstract Homage To Verdi's Requiem 2001, created for the Venice Biennale in 2001, when Singapore was first invited to participate in one of the world's oldest visual art festivals. Mr Tang Wee Kit, chairman and managing director of Tang Holdings, which owns the hotel, is a keen supporter of local artists.
Four Seasons Hotel
Four Seasons has around 1,500 artworks from artists such as Goh Beng Kwan, Lee Hock Moh and Wu Tsai Yen from Singapore, and Fauzan Omar from Malaysia.
The works - mostly of Asian origin - were purchased at auctions or from private collectors in Asia. Owner Hotel Properties said in 1994 that the collection was worth $1 million.
New Majestic Hotel
This boutique hotel in Chinatown worked artworks into its design and identity right from Day One.
Each of its 30 rooms, the pool surrounds and the gym were designed by creative Singaporeans. They include emerging Singapore artists such as Justin Lee and designers such as Wykidd Song.
The hotel also has sculptures by Beijing artists Cai Zhi Song and Chen Wen Ling.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Apr 27, 2008.