Mike Oleskow doesn't think people know what a curator does. “What they think is that the art just gets up on the nail on the wall by itself,” he said during a tour of the several art spaces at FOUND:RE, the downtown art hotel where he works. He chuckled. “They think, ‘Oh, that painting is pretty!’ But not about how it got there.”
Oleskow, the hotel’s cultural curator, said he doesn't mind. People told him all the time how lucky he is, and he always agreed. “They say, ‘Oh, how great, you get to go out and meet artists and pick what you like.' Blah blah blah. They’re right, even though they have no idea.”
FOUND:RE opened in October 2016, but Oleskow was on board the year before, eyeballing blueprints and making suggestions about lighting.
“Tim Sprague, the owner, originally wanted me as the concierge, a bon vivant who knew the arts scene and downtown. This is before they decided it was going to be an art hotel.” When the former Best Western opened, it was Oleskow’s taste and his love of local artists that filled the walls in both common areas and each room of the hotel.
“I was originally going to do one artist per floor,” Oleskow said while making his rounds of the hotel’s several gallery spaces. “It didn’t work because the floor plans were different on each floor, so the wall space was different in each room. We have eight floors and 104 rooms.”
He finally decided to use eight artists and divide their work among the rooms, with artwork at each elevator landing and in common areas. “Another thing is each room number is a work of art by Cheryl Marine. You can’t buy them. They’re one-of-a-kind collages. Luckily, no one has taken off with one of them.”
He paused in front of an installation of Linda Ingraham’s Reveries, a series of large panels depicting a woman’s face.
“I saw these in Linda’s studio and said, ‘What if they were a lot bigger?’ I had to come up with a size where they would fit around the little fire hydrant thingie on the wall there.” He pointed to a nearby grouping of sofas. “We had these throw pillows made with Reveries printed on them, just to be fun. Linda is also in all our double rooms. She has this series of flying lemons that I used there. Very Magritte. Very fun.”
Originally, Oleskow remembered, the owners wanted to do murals in each room. “They had an artist who was going to paint street signs on the walls. I said, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s paint by number. That’s not what an art hotel has.’”
Sprague was generous, Oleskow said, in letting him make artistic choices. “I’ve got prints and giclees in the rooms, and they’re for sale. People usually want the originals, so most of the originals have sold as a result.”
Before FOUND:RE, Oleskow ran his own gallery. “I did it for three years, and it was great. Sometimes, at the end of the night, there was more money in our bartender’s tip jar than in art sales, but I met a lot of artists and learned a lot about the art community.”
Across from the sofa with the Linda Ingraham pillows was another gallery space.
“That’s our lounge wall,” Oleskow explained. “I’ve been doing mostly photography there. I change it out every month. Right now, it’s a group show by Image Works. They do large-format fine photography — that whole Ansel Adams thing.”
Pretty much everything at FOUND:RE is for sale, Oleskow said, with a price range between $500 and $20,000.
“Our main meeting room is called The Gallery, and it can be separated into two exhibits,” he said, turning down a long hallway filled with portraits of horses and chimpanzees by the painter Kathy Taylor. In the gym at the end of the hallway, a giant Derek Ellis photograph of bales of hay painted like an American flag filled one wall. “His sense of lighting is amazing,” Oleskow pointed out. “There’s so much loneliness and melancholy.”
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Outside the door of the gym was a cityscape of downtown Phoenix. “That one is by Tim, our valet. I think it’s already sold.”
He crossed to a narrow building next to the swimming pool. “This is the Studio Gallery,” he said. “It’s been a challenge to get people to come to this particular space on First Fridays, for some reason. They come into the hotel and look at the Diego Perez painting or the Burt Reynolds portrait by Randy Slack.”
One of the hardest things to do, Oleskow felt, was the part he loved the most: assembling an exhibit. “It’s like a chess game for me. Or checkers. I keep moving pieces until it feels right, and then I hang it. Sometimes I have to change all the wiring on each piece or spend hours just on lighting. Figuring out all these details is the challenge, and the best part for me.”
All that piecing together, Oleskow believed, was what makes a curator. “It’s you and your eye, knowing where things go, everything you put into it, because you care. People have no idea you were even there, but it’s fine. They’re not looking at the walls to see a curator. They’re looking at the art.”