Clad in a well-tailored black suit, Michelle Chen is happy to be called “Madam Hotel Art.”

A law major, Chen first worked in government departments before being employed by an overseas listed company as general manager for north China.

“But my passion toward art has never died since I was a little girl, and I started to buy artworks in the 1990s,” says the Shanghai native, one of the founders of Panorama Art. “Then I met my French partner Jean Philippe Weber, a well-known antiquary, curator, art designer and decorator. We share same interest and idea.”

Chen says she didn’t have any formal art training, yet her judgment and aesthetic taste for art are instinctive.

“This is something that even I am surprised about and proud of,” says Chen, who’s in her 40s. “Perhaps it is a pity that I can’t be an artist, but I feel so fortunate that finally I have been on the right track with art in my life.”

Chen’s clients include Hyatt, Fuchun Resort and The Lalu, and her latest two projects in Shanghai are choosing artworks for the Sukhothai Shanghai, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, and public art pieces for HKRI Taikoo Hui.

MIchelle Chen

Q: How long did the project last? How many works have you chosen for the hotel?

A: My team worked for the project for almost three years. We selected nearly 260 original artworks by artists from the UK, France, Belgium, Republic of Korea, Japan and China. Except for two digital art pieces, all the works are commissioned for the hotel.

Q: Your role, to be exact, is quite close to that of a curator for an exhibition. So what is your criteria in choosing artists? Is there a hidden link among them?

A: I like your metaphor, which is quite vivid and direct. Based on our own understanding of the project, we followed the five elements deeply rooted in Sukhothai, namely water, silk, mirror, wood and granite. So there is a clear theme among the artworks that we chose.

Q: The artworks permanently displayed at the hotel is quite stunning, some of which were created by big names in the international art community. So how did you find them?

A: All the artists and art groups you find here have actually been focused on by my team for many years. Take teamLab for example. The famous digital art group was spotted by me in as early as 2002. I was so amazed by their Japanese aesthetics, stunning design and new technology that I even bought one for myself. But now I am so glad that their works can be appreciated not only by the hotel guests, but their fans in Shanghai as well.

"Layers of Tranquility," by Zheng Lu, in Sukhothai Shanghai
“Layers of Tranquility,” by Zheng Lu, in Sukhothai Shanghai

Q: To create a commissioned artwork for a certain environment might be a different experience for artists. Did you find any difficulty in communicating with the artists? Who impressed you the most?

A: Yes, it is an utterly different experience for artists to do commissioned work. I was especially impressed by the work created by Zheng Lu, a young Chinese artist, who is known for his sculpture related to water. Although water was also one of the five elements of the theme, Zheng gave up his familiar topic after several on-site inspections and instead used glass to create an installation featuring bubbles in different sizes in gradient hues.

Q: How did you balance between the specific requirements of the client and the freedom of the artists?

A: This is something that I am good at as an art consultant.

I respect the artists that I chose and at the same time I will make suggestions to help them understand more about the theme.

For example, Christian De Laubadere, a veteran French artist, created three black-and-white paintings for the Italian restaurant at the hotel. These paintings were surely classy and elegant, very French-style, but they appeared not so visually powerful, for a restaurant, so I suggested he add some silk to the canvas, one of the elements of the theme. Guess what? After the small adjustment, not only the viewers but also the artist himself liked the final rendering very much.

Digital art "Four Seasons, 1,000 Years, Terraced Rice Fields, Tashibunosho," by teamLab, in Sukhothai Shanghai
Digital art “Four Seasons, 1,000 Years, Terraced Rice Fields, Tashibunosho,” by teamLab, in Sukhothai Shanghai

Q: Usually many five-star hotels would like to use large oils for decoration, but here at the Sukhothai Shanghai I’m surprised to find video, digital art and installations. So what’s the feedback? Any negative voice?

A: When I first introduced digital art to the hotel’s management, they didn’t seem to be interested in it at all. Within two years, I arranged a trip for some of them to visit the artist’s studio and their exhibitions. I am confident that new forms of art are the trend in the future. Today I am very grateful to Victor Cha, vice chairman of HKRI International, and his team who gave me full trust and support.

Q: How do you enrich your professional knowledge in the latest art trend?

A: You just can’t imagine how many business trips I take every year to visit architects, interior designers, landscape designers, artists and their exhibitions around the world. But I really enjoy the whole process.

Q: Do you have any regrets in your previous projects?

A: Sure, but I always tell myself that I will avoid such regret next time.

Public art "Drift," by Paul Cocksedge, in HKRI Taikoo Hui
Public art “Drift,” by Paul Cocksedge, in HKRI Taikoo Hui