Sydell Group.

Isadora McKeon portrait by Dorothee Annabel; courtesy of the LINE and Sydell Group.

Sydell Group.

The LINE Austin, Dean's One Trick Pony; art by Drew Liverman; photo by Chase Daniel; courtesy of the LINE and Sydell Group.

Sydell Group.

The LINE Austin; Nick Thomm pop-up exhibition; photo by Chase Daniel; courtesy of the LINE and Sydell Group.

Sydell Group.

The LINE LA; courtesy of the LINE and Sydell Group.

Sydell Group.

The LINE LA; courtesy of the LINE and Sydell Group.

Sydell Group.

The LINE DC; Secret Walls art event; courtesy of the LINE and Sydell Group.

Sydell Group.

The LINE LA; art from Gianni Lee's artist in residency program; photo by Mike Pham; courtesy of the LINE and Sydell Group.

Sydell Group.

The LINE DC; center banner by Jamilla Okubo; courtesy of the LINE and Sydell Group.

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Austin

How Sydell Group Utilizes Art for Cultural Connection

Right now in Austin at the LINE hotel, artists Shepard Fairey and Sandra Chevrier are unveiling a mural entitled The Beauty of Liberty and Equality. Now the largest mural in the city, the twelve-story piece demonstrates the values of equality and collaboration between sexes. By fusing styles and iconography that evoke the power of women, the mural is a special ode to the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the United States.

This type of artistic direction is, however, not a new facet for the LINE properties. With unique interior design, curated experiences, artist in residence programs, and more, the hotel brand has become a national hotel destination for travelers looking for a creative beat. In DC, the hotel is a central meeting point for creatives, connecting through acclaimed cocktails and plates, artworks, and a radio lounge in the lobby; in L.A., visitors explore public art installations and curated goods in the lobby shop; and in Austin, unique installations reel visitors and locals in, guiding them to a backyard pool and Arlo Grey—a restaurant by Top Chef winner Kristen Kish.

Whitewall recently spoke with Isadora McKeon, Senior Vice President of Creative and Culture at Sydell Group, to hear about how the parent company infuses art into the LINE properties.

WHITEWALL: Tell us about your background leading up to working at Sydell Group.

ISADORA MCKEON: I stumbled into the hotel industry in Austin, Texas where I was working for Liz Lambert at Bunkhouse Group for over a decade. Travel has been central to my life and my passion for as long as I can remember, so something just sort of clicked when I met Liz after taking a year off to travel in Central America. I think I was technically the first employee of Bunkhouse and got to learn every angle of the business as we built the company from one hotel and two coffee shops to what it is today. I’m forever grateful for the things I learned there and very proud of what we created together at Bunkhouse.

WW: Can you tell us a bit about your role today?

IM: I got a phone call from Sydell Group CEO Andrew Zobler one auspicious day, asking me to come to New York to interview for the new creative leadership role they were developing. That call came at a time in my personal life when I was ready for a new adventure.

I had never lived in New York so that was an exciting prospect, and I had long admired Sydell Group’s work since my first stay at NoMad New York shortly after it opened. It was also a time where I felt that the next generation of the Bunkhouse team was ready to take that company to its next phase of evolution, and I was very interested in taking the lessons I learned there and bringing them to a larger stage.

I was deeply inspired by Sydell Group’s ability to create such beautiful and meaningful experiences at scale, and wanted to see what it was like to do cultural work in new places. I was honored that they offered me the position and the rest is history.

WW: Tell us a bit about the hotel brand’s art programming, and its artist in residence program.

IM: Our art programming and artist-in-residence programs take shape in different ways in each city. In DC, our podcast network Full Service Radio is home to over 32 shows per week, hosted by a really diverse array of community voices from art, culture, music and beyond. It’s an incredible way to access the people and stories of the city through myriad lenses. In Austin, we have a dedicated artist’s studio and residency in partnership with amazing local non-profit Big Medium that is home to four different visual artists each year for 6-week stints, and we have gallery space where we showcase works from our in-room artists.

We actually commissioned over 500 original works from Texas artists for the guest rooms, and we wanted to create an opportunity for people who might not be staying at the hotel to also see bigger works by those artists. It’s been amazing to see those works selling and makes us very proud to be able to offer that visibility to all who come through our lobby. In L.A., the lobby acts as a rotating gallery of works that our retail partners and local creative geniuses Poketo curate, and we host people like the Shoe Surgeon regularly for shoe-making workshops, which is this incredible opportunity to deconstruct tennis shoes and remake them according to your wildest fantasies. Art comes in many forms and we love the chance to connect artists and workshop attendees in a “get your hands dirty” scenario.

Additionally, we host a lot of what I’d say are really unique events and programs at each property from drawing classes with people like Julie Houts to mural competitions like the Secret Walls live mural battle we hosted this year in DC. As a book nerd, one of my favorite events we host in Austin is Lit City—a quarterly event in partnership with American Short Fiction. It’s amazing to see 75 people show up on a weeknight to hear authors read their works. In DC this year, we hosted a Queer Zine Workshop with the Library of Congress, home to the largest queer zine collection in the country (possibly the world). We will be doing a bunch more events with the Library of Congress in 2020, in collaboration with the librarian who oversees their Women, Gender, and LGBTQ+ collection. This is just a small sampling of the things going on. Really, on any given day at a LINE hotel, we are hosting some form of an arts event. I learn something new from these events every time. It’s really awesome.

WW: What type of artist do you aim to collaborate with?

IM: Diversity and a plurality of voices are two major goals for us in our arts programs. We want to make sure we’re casting the widest and most thoughtful net to let the community tell us what that is in each city. It would be easy, and I’ve certainly seen it done, to say, “Okay, Austin’s a live music city so let’s slap a band in the public spaces every night.” We want to go way beyond that, and we do that by engaging in conversations in our communities about under-represented artists and art forms, and letting our communities inform our programs.

WW: How do you feel public art impacts its community?

IM: Really, being in the hotel business is about being in the place-making business. Hotels are only as successful as their communities are interesting, and our job is to make sure that we’re showcasing the voices in each city that really make the place what it is.

WW: What do you feel is the special sauce for making hotels a destination?

IM: I try to stay away from thinking too much about special sauce. In this age of viral internet culture it can be easy to compare ourselves to what others are doing and get caught up in the whole “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. Everybody’s got a tattoo pop-up or the coolest DJ or whatever. Lots of companies (not just hotel companies, but brands in general) throw money at the newest thing and clearly we are living in a time where marketing has become about leveraging artists to create brand “experiences.”

I am using a lot of quotation marks here because all of this feels very cliché to use words like “boutique” or “lifestyle” or “experience.” In my view, it’s about the depth of the relationship we create with our arts partners. It’s about listening, and about cultivating real connections with people. When we do this, we provide resources or a platform that are actually needed in each community rather than simply plugging in any old band to drive drink sales, for example. It may sound corny or sentimental, but I really believe that taking the time to invest in a meaningful connection with the arts community and letting their needs guide our support, the deeper the roots grow and the more we cultivate a true bond of community that resonates from the partnership. Doing this work is a lot like cultivating relationships in one’s personal life. There’s no shortcut and people can sense when it’s superficial.

WW: Traveling is tricky right now, with the Coronavirus impacting a lot of decisions. Does anything in particular about day-to-day life inspire you the way travel might?

IM: Every day in New York is an adventure of its own. I still look up like a tourist, and every day when I’m walking to work I think of all the legendary, historic things that have happened on these streets. This is where Jane Jacobs and other women organized to save Washington Square Park, and over there is where the gay rights movement started. New York is like an entire country to be explored unto itself. I pretty much spend all my time going to the oldest places in the city. I know native New Yorkers always talk about how much things have changed, but there’s still so much that makes this place one of the most magical cities in the world.

That said, I’m dying to get back to Japan. What a place.

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