How Cruise Ships Are Building Gallery-Worthy Art Collections

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In recent years, cruise lines have done much to reshape the sailing experience: exploring partnerships with star-level chefs to elevate the food, investing heavily in luxury spa and wellness programs, and even revamping entertainment to include live DJs and drag brunches on board. Now, they’re investing in another way to change the ships—onboard art collections. 

The sheer number of works on even a small ship can be dizzying. The 600-passenger Seabourn Ovation carries 1,600 works of art from nearly 120 artists, while its sister ship, Seabourn Encore, has a similar number. Seabourn turned to Tal Danai, founder and CEO of art consultancy ArtLink, to source and commission all of the art for both. He and three curators worked closely with noted designer Adam Tihany, who led the design vision for the ships, to create a narrative to guide the project. For Ovation the theme was “revisited memories,” and the team created a mood board, complete with key words and touch points as well as possible artworks and artists, that they could reference when considering works.

Once the direction was set, the curators’ job was to work with artists to either purchase existing works or commission original pieces. Danai and his team wanted to make the corridors—the main arteries of the ship—places of interest. They put together hundreds of drawings, postcards, and books—and gave one each to the artists they worked with, asking them to imagine they bought it years ago or as if the postcard fell out of a book. “We told them to make a manifestation of what they felt, and we got beautiful works of art,” Danai said. “One artist embroidered a classic botanical drawing, one cut out the images from a book and left only text. Now, passengers walk by and look, and relate to a piece of art.”

Danai and his team also commissioned a number of craft pieces, including vases from Korean artist Yoo Eui Jeong, whose work is in museum collections in Korea and Norway. They commissioned artist Valeria Nascimento to create a black porcelain work for the wall of the ship’s Japanese restaurant; they had her son, Lucas, create a white porcelain piece that hangs opposite, separated by a window.

Commissioning and purchasing pieces from living artists makes a lot of sense for luxury cruise ships on many levels, says Italian art curator Monica Cembrola, founder of Monica Cembrola for Art. For Silversea, she and her team of three curators gathered 600 works of contemporary art, most sourced directly from Italian artists, to create a collection themed “the lightness of travel” for the line’s new 600-passenger Silver Muse. “We had a very conservative budget, so instead of going to galleries, we gave younger artists a chance and bought directly from them,” Cembrola says. “The artworks are imposing and intriguing, and the passengers notice—they post photos on Instagram.” 

Artists like Donato Pompa are featured in the ship’s Art Cafe. While the artwork on board isn’t for sale, so many passengers inquired about purchasing works that Cembrola asked the artists to remake certain pieces to sell to them. Her team also curated the collection on the soon-to-launch Silver Moon, which is based around chromatic and figurative pop art, mixed media, and collage.

At Windstar, where speed is of the essence as they quickly grow their fleet of ships, most art in the new public spaces will be prints and lithographs from contemporary artists and photographers. “It’s cost-effective and faster,” says Roy Chung, director of design at the Johnson Studio at Cooper Carry. “We have three ships being fitted out in one year.” But the aim is always to keep passengers delighted with unexpected beauty and detail. 

That’s not uncommon for cruise lines that know they have some advantages in how they display these works. When Ponant was building the 184-passenger Le Jacques Cartier explorer ship, they commissioned Paris-based graffiti artist Shuck One to create an ocean-and-nature themed piece on the raw steel of the ship. Then they covered it up—except for a secret porthole where passengers can catch a glimpse of the hidden work. “It’s a surprise and delight moment for passengers when they discover the piece,” says Jean Emmanuel Sauvée, president and CEO of the line.

It’s a lesser-known aspect of cruising, but these lines are giving young and contemporary artists visibility and more paths to earn a living through their art. They’re also surrounding passengers with original artwork, sculpture, tapestries, photography, and ceramics—enriching the cruise experience and creating moments of enchantment along the way. 

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