It’s by far the busiest art gallery on Grand Cayman, with hundreds of people passing through every day of the year.
Dozens of the Cayman Islands’ best artists have works displayed there and sales are booming.
Yet the most surprising aspect of the art gallery at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman is that it was an afterthought to the space’s originally intended purpose: a bridge that would allow hotel guests to safely cross busy West Bay Road on their way to the beach.
The vision for the gallery was first conceived in 2004 while the hotel was still under construction, says General Manager Marc Langevin, who was with the opening team before returning to assume his current role.
At the time, different areas and rooms were being dubbed various names to reflect their purpose and instil interest in them, Langevin says, recalling how difficult it was to identify one for the bridge walkway.
“The hallway, the bridge … not very attractive,” Langevin says.
During one brainstorming session, someone threw out the term “gallery.” Feeling like he was asking a stupid question, Langevin asked, “How could it be called a gallery unless it was for art?”
The conversation started to flow around this idea and the concept of an art gallery to sell local artworks was born, he says.
This idea was transformational in many respects.
“Lemons became lemonade,” is how Langevin describes its genesis. “What started out as a problem turned into a win-win solution for the hotel, for artists in Cayman, and for guests and residents as well.”
The art gallery needed a curator. The National Gallery of the Cayman Islands recommend Chris Christian, an accomplished artist in his own right. Christian had been working hard to learn the ropes of curating through years of volunteer work at the National Gallery. He was more than ready for the challenge.
Early plans were modest, with pieces being rotated on a quarterly basis. To create interest in the gallery and ensure it represented the community well, Christian concentrated on building the relationships with established artists. However, he also reached out to students at the schools throughout the Cayman Islands, at times organising specific shows for their works and coaching them as they developed their approach to art.
Over time the gallery grew, taking up more space and gaining attention with busy openings and successful sales. Eventually, the decision was made to change out works continuously throughout the course of the year.
Christian now constantly checks in with artists to ensure he keeps the spaces filled with work. The art must be to the standard The Ritz-Carlton wants to show — with nothing too graphic — and work in terms of the eclectic experience the hotel wants for its guests. Large abstract pieces hang beside charming realistic images and impressionist watercolours; pieces with glasswork and acrylics hang above sculptures of turtles, mermaids and other carvings.
“I want to make sure everyone gets a chance to show their work,” says Christian. “There are over 300 paintings; I want the eye to travel across the works as one is walking.”
One particular artist who has done very well with sales of his paintings at the gallery is Shane Aquart, better known in the art world as Dready.
Aquart began creating graphic artwork at about the same time the hotel was being developed, first through simple stick-figure images for postcards and t-shirts showing the character Dready, which became hugely popular throughout the Caribbean.
At one point a client at Camana Bay asked him if he could create something besides stick figures. This spurred Aquart to develop his skills further, creating art pieces that tell whimsical stories about a variety of subjects while staying true to his Caribbean heritage.
“I have to find this little West Indian twist to make it back into Dready,” he says.
Other pieces are more specific to clients’ requests such as the large image of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman he created to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the opening of the hotel, which was also printed on a select number of cards and mugs for guests so that they could bring a little bit of their experience back home with them.
One of these images now hangs in the hotel’s Club Lounge area, although a smaller version depicting the hotel hangs in the gallery along with a number of other Dready works.
The guest section of the bridge structure spans about 300 feet and much of its walls are covered with paintings or photographs, some originals and some prints.
A Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman staff member sits at the beach end of the bridge to assist guests who wish to buy a piece of art. Paintings range from a modest CI$250 up to $85,000 and sales have never been better.
“Cayman Cookout was a huge success for the gallery,” says Christian. “In one day alone, we sold 38 paintings.”
More importantly, guests and residents continue to enjoy a visual experience that not only connects them to Seven Mile Beach, but also to the Cayman Islands in a unique way. In that sense, the art gallery is a bridge in more ways than the architects ever dreamed.