Decorations on hotel walls can range from subtle to surreal, writes Lauren Quaintance.

It used to be that art in hotels was deliberately inoffensive. You might find a predictable landscape painting hanging above your bed, or an insipid pastel print that matched the bedspread. The rare exceptions include hotels like New York's Hotel Chelsea where artists left work in lieu of payment in the 1950s and 1960s making it something of a museum. For the most part artwork in hotels was purely decorative; it filled a blank space but hoteliers were happy if guests didn't notice it at all.

Now hotels are not only amassing serious art collections - they are commissioning original work, hiring curators and appointing artists in residence. Casino magnate Steve Wynn's hotel in Las Vegas has a $28m Jeff Koons statue of Popeye. And in Zurich the Dolder Grand has a gallery-worthy collection of art with more than 100 original works including pieces by Salvador Dali, Damien Hirst and Henry Moore.

Top London hotels Claridges and the Savoy have both appointed artists in residence in the past few years, and QT Sydney has its own curator, modern art specialist Amanda Love, who has bought and commissioned the work that hangs within the hotel.

And then, of course, there are art-themed hotels. In Melbourne, The Cullen, The Olsen and The Blackman are part of the Art Series group named after well-known Australian artists.

Melbourne's Cullen Hotel pays tribute to the work of artist Adam Cullen and belongs to Australia's Art Series Hotel Group.
Melbourne's Cullen Hotel pays tribute to the work of artist Adam Cullen and belongs to Australia's Art Series Hotel Group.

As hotels compete to differentiate themselves art, it seems, is part of a modern hotel's identity. Jan Freitag from US hotel-industry research firm STR told the Wall Street Journal recently that the rise of art in hotels is part of the "lifestyle marketing" trend. "Hotels are trying to be more than just grey boxes with beige carpets," he said. "It's all about making the stay memorable." Whereas once it was enough to put a modernist chair in the foyer and call yourself a "design hotel" guests now want something more.

But here's the rub: art that might be inspiring to one guest may just be ugly or offensive to another. Contemporary art is a risk.

Australia's Art Series group was brave enough to launch a hotel based on the work of grunge artist Adam Cullen. Cullen was known for painting both dead animals and headless women (although none of his most extreme work appears in the Melbourne hotel). Ryan Tuckerman, art series marketing manager, says he accepts that the hotel might not be for everyone. "Art is polarising, that is what makes it fun and interesting, he says.

"Everyone has an opinion and we want to open up the discussion to our guests. Whether they love it or are not too fussed, it creates chatter and comes to down to taste."

During a recent trip to Tokyo, I stayed at the Park Hotel in Shiodome which is part-way through a four-year project to have all 31 rooms on its 31st floor decorated by Japanese artists, including Ryosuke Yasumoto and Masako Inkyo. Every room has a Japanese theme so, for example, there is a sumo room and a bathhouse room. The popular "washi" room which features black and white sculptures made from Japanese paper by Naoki Takenouchi, is quite restrained. Whereas the "festival room" by Nanami Ishihara - a kaleidoscope of colourful gods, elephants and rabbits on the walls, doors and roof - is nothing short of dramatic.

Part of me found the idea of staying in some of the rooms exhausting. Shouldn't a hotel room be soothing rather than challenging? Shouldn't it be a place of refuge? Still, after a few nights I came to think of the hotel's approach to art being a little like Tokyo itself. It is a city of contradictions. It is wacky and chaotic, but it is also steeped in tradition. And so are the rooms in the Park Hotel - it's just up to you to choose.

Rather than being art for art's sake, the best hotel art tells you something about your destination. It illuminates an aspect of the culture or history or highlights an experience you can have there. It shouldn't necessarily be a painting that you'd want to hang in your living room. That, after all, is why we travel - to open our minds and to give ourselves the shock of the new.