Art for Guests' Sake
New teaching hotel at Kirkwood Community College doubles as gallery; 300-plus total works on display
Posted on: September 2nd, 2010

[Cedar Rapids, Iowa] -- When guests and visitors first arrive at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, the initial impressions can be profound. Created chiefly as a real-world teaching laboratory for Hospitality Arts students, the new 71-room facility at Kirkwood Community College could also be mistaken for an art gallery.

Located on the south side of Cedar Rapids, The Hotel displays works chiefly by Kirkwood students, faculty and alumni, plus a representative selection of noted Iowa and Midwest artists with college or community ties. The hundreds of pieces run the gamut from photographs and paintings to glass, sculptures and textiles.

The man behind this virtual gallery is Arts Specialist Arbe Bareis. A Cedar Rapids native, Bareis was an early champion of using the four floors of guest rooms, common areas and Kirkwood Center conference facilities to showcase the artistic side of both the college and Iowa.

“As soon as I saw the preliminary designs and drawings, I knew The Hotel had great potential for art on display. The level of enthusiasm from all directions has been tremendous, and it shows in the great number of works, the spectrum of styles, and how the wide variety seems to orbit around the theme of Iowa and our people. We are an exciting group of people and that is reflected in Kirkwood’s hotel, which probably has more original art on display than any hotel in the country. It is thrilling to be part of what is really a unique happening in the history of the hotel in this country!” Bareis remarked.

Built as a working laboratory for Kirkwood’s five Hospitality Arts credit programs, The Hotel developed with a focused aesthetic purpose. General Manager Lee Belfield conceived the facility in 2004, seeing the value of “doing the work, seeing hospitality service in action” as a valuable asset in the learning experience.

“This hotel has been a powerful learning and teaching experience, even in the design and construction phases,” Belfield said. “Arbe and our Kirkwood arts faculty get a lot of credit for adding artistic touches to the place, from early in the game.”

Artists represented in both the hotel and the adjacent conference center have work in the collections of major museums and institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Roswell Museum and Art Center, the Florida Center for Contemporary Art in Tampa, Yale University, and several U.S. Embassies.

Belfield also said the hundreds of art works add to a core idea in conceptualizing and completing The Hotel. “The pervading feel and dominant theme we have here is caught in an acronym we say every day: ‘HUT.’ That stands for ‘Hip, Urban and Trendy.’ That wasn’t just a catchy theme to toss out but a conscious choice, based on what we feel a key trend is in the hospitality industry. We wanted to build a teaching facility to prepare our students to take entry-leadership roles in the top hotel, motel and conference event companies in North America. We believe this teaching facility will give them a top-level learning experience, getting those students prepared for those roles,” Belfield added.

To reflect those goals and add an artistic experience for guests, the 320 works in The Hotel’s collection have a core student focus. Techniques honed in Kirkwood’s Fine Arts classrooms found new presentation spots in every corner of the facility.

“All the photographs in the guest rooms are by Kirkwood students. We had a competition in our photography classes to determine the winners. Also there is a long hallway leading to our Hospitality Arts labs, classrooms and student areas. There are more than 50 photos displayed in that collection, and they are all by our students, too,” Bareis said.

A medium not found in many college course listings is glass-making. Kirkwood has one of the few comprehensive glass and ceramic programs at a community college in the Midwest. Bareis said the new teaching hotel is a “true showcase for creative glass” with deep scholastic background.

“We have one of the most creative and driven art glass faculty members around in Conifer Smith. She has been a dynamo in making works for our restaurant, conference rooms and the six suites of The Hotel. There are dozens of glass works on display. The complete effect is profound when people see these,” Bareis said.

A visual focal point of these works hangs above dining guests in the Class Act restaurant area. Smith and a student created a glass chandelier suspended above a special circular dining table. The clear globes form a constellation around a larger clear glass globe with white swirls. Set against the deep reds, blacks and whites of the restaurant décor, the chandelier creates what Bareis calls a “beautiful and impressive focal point” for visitors.

Other large-format works created for The Hotel include massive collage murals in the student lounge area at the back of The Hotel’s first floor. Kirkwood hosted a “topping out party” in November 2009, inviting college supporters and civic leaders to celebrate a milestone in construction with food, drinks and hard-hat tours. Each guest was invited to sign their name to large sheets of Mylar plastic. Those signatures became a backdrop for another student-focused competition.

“We had students in our Graphics Communications classes submit concepts employing those names to create a salute to the community whose encouragement made this place possible. Our winning entry was Erica Wery of Cedar Rapids. Her design will be visible to our students and visitors for years to come,” Bareis added.

The two fourteen foot murals show fruits and vegetables in vivid color, with the many signatures seeming to float, embedded within the food images. All told, more than 500 names are worked within the two giant murals.

As Arbe Bareis walks through the Kirkwood Center, he pauses to touch the smoothed stone wall in front of him.

“This sandstone façade was quarried from Stone City, less than 20 miles away. The dark wood you see all through The Hotel is Iowa walnut. There are more than 300 art works that also reflect those artists and their lives here. You might say the entire facility is a sonata to Iowa. It has been a joy to have a part in bringing all this together.”

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