I like guidebooks. Before I travel, I like to read about my destination, savoring the reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions, planning itineraries. The guidebooks are too gushy (“Don’t miss the legendary Joyce Kilmer rest stop on the iconic New Jersey Turnpike”), but still an essential part of my pre-trip routine. So when I read about a Melbourne hotel called The Cullen during my prep work for our current trip to Australia, I was delighted. I had to go. Family pride and all.
My wife Ann, who buys my guidebooks and indulges my traveling whims most of the time, and I set out on foot on a beautiful summer morning, walking past the National Gallery of Victoria in the city’s official Art Precinct along a route full of parks and gardens, tennis courts and cricket pitches, till we emerged onto a street called Commercial Road, the heart of a neighborhood called Prahran.
Prahran (an amalgamation of a couple of aboriginal words meaning place near water or some such) was a 19th Century Melbourne suburb that has gone down at the heels and come back again. According to what I’ve read, it has trod the path of gentrification, including phases as a hippie haven and a center of Melbourne’s gay community. Now it’s an eclectic, cheerful mix of cafes, boutiques, and Chinese massage parlors. It’s got the requisite badge of funky Melbourne chic, which is laneways (i.e. alleys) full of dark, artful graffiti. But in Prahran’s laneways, you can also spot genuine little old ladies who live in the neighborhood, giving the whole thing a certain authenticity that more celebrated laneways in the city center plainly lack.
The Cullen (or as the hotel’s graphic design team would have it, [THE CULLEN]) is on Commercial Road in the heart of Prahran, across from the central market. It’s a newish building, in a modern architectural palette, maybe eight stories high. There’s no doorman at the entrance, but there are a couple of the hotel’s rental bikes parked there in case a guest wants to go for a spin. And next to the hotel’s name is a rather garish portrait of a dog, a smiling dog with tongue hanging out, maybe a collie or shepherd mix, with strangely insouciant eyes. This is no Hilton or Westin, traveler, the dog seems to say.
And indeed it is not. [THE CULLEN] is part of a small chain of Australian boutique hotels called the Art Series, created by a Melbourne company called the Deague Group. The concept is that each hotel is named for a contemporary Australian artist and decorated with his or her work. There are original paintings in the common areas and prints in the bedrooms. The staff not only run the hotel, but act as docents, expounding on the life and work of its eponymous artist.
[THE CULLEN] is named for a man I have decided to call my Cousin Adam. (Some Cullens emigrated from Ireland to America, and some to Australia. I can’t document it, but there’s got to be a little consanguinity somewhere.) That’s a picture of Cousin Adam above right, which I downloaded from a web site that didn’t credit the photographer. He’s standing in front of a portrait of an Australian actor named David Wenham, a painting that won Australia’s Archibald Prize in 2000. Which I believe is a big deal for an Australian painter.
There’s a lot of Cousin Adam’s work on display. You can sit in the small lobby under a depiction of an Australian outlaw named Ned Kelly being arrested by a constable named Fitzpatrick in 1878. As you wait for the elevator, you can contemplate the backside of a bull that he painted after a fellowship in Barcelona in 2007. His work features bold black lines and iridescent colors and a lot of dripping paint. The charming young woman tending the front desk explained that the drips seem to correlate with Cousin Adam’s emotional state when he created them. The more upset he was, the more paint dripped.
And Cousin Adam, she said, spent a lot of his life upset. He was either a bit of a nut, or a man who understood how to create the persona of a tormented artist in the post-Van Gogh era. In Sydney, where he studied art, he is remembered for a 1980s performance piece in which he chained a dead pig’s head to his leg and dragged it around for a week, till it stank so badly that he was banned from public transport and had to give it up. He had an unfortunate penchant for booze and firearms and he died young, at 46, back in 2012. (You can read more about him here.)
I don’t know what the deal was between Cousin Adam and the Deague Group, but I hope it paid him well. It has definitely paid off for the Deague Group. Its Art Series chain, now up to nine properties, was sold a few months ago for $52 million to a company called the Mantra Group. And our docent told us that Mantra has immediately flipped the mini-chain to a still bigger corporate entity called Accor Hotels. As part of that deal, she confided, the original Cousin Adam paintings are being removed from [THE CULLEN] and replaced. She wouldn’t call the replacement works copies, but the implication was clear. What was once original is being commodified.
I just hope that Cousin Adam’s heirs, whoever they may be, got a piece of the pie. Somehow, though, I doubt it.