Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

Cruise curators

Increasingly, cruise ships are becoming galleries at sea.

In 2005, Denver artist Lawrence Argent crafted a 40-foot-tall blue bear out of fiberglass and posed it peering through the towering glass windows of the Colorado Convention Center.

"I saw it and I loved it," said Joan Blackman, an art consultant for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. "And I said to myself, one day we're going to have the opportunity to have this onboard."

Nine years later, the company's Quantum of the Seas emerged from a shipyard in Germany with a 32-foot-tall bear, this one pink and made of stainless steel, affixed to the top deck.

"It became an identifier," Blackman said. "And it says a lot about Royal, because they've given you not only something to talk about but it's really kind of intrigued you and made you smile."

Art has always been a background element on a cruise, but increasingly it is stepping into the spotlight. Some lines are spending millions of dollars on art with each new ship. (View a slideshow here.)

Blackman, a co-founder and partner at International Corporate Art (ICArt) in Coral Gables, Fla., said the emphasis on art helps drive home the quality of the cruise experience and give cruise lines an extra surprise, a different experience and a conversation item to offer guests.

"They're trying to differentiate themselves, their brands, their ships and create something that is their [unique] characteristic," she said.

Strategies are as varied as the brands. At some lines, art reinforces a national identity that it cultivates or emphasizes heritage and tradition. Other lines want to appear contemporary.

And some are offering a curated art collection worthy of connoisseurs.

In general, art on cruise ships is becoming more three-dimensional, more interactive and more driven by technological possibilities than in the past, according to Blackman.


Onboard Royal Caribbean International's recently delivered Harmony of the Seas, there are more than 3,000 pieces of art worth $6.5 million.

Perhaps the most talked about piece is "Head," five tons of steel and embedded motors that moves multiple plates intermittently to create a three-dimensional human head.

Created by Czech artist David Cerny and installed on the Harmony's indoor promenade, "Head" is both a legitimate work of art and the kind of showpiece that resonates with cruise guests.

Another provocative piece, "Medusa's Shoes," by Dutch artist John Breed, sits outside the ship's Entertainment Place neighborhood. It is a gilded thicket of upturned legs and shoes kicking in the air.

Mariangela Capuzzo, who commissioned the piece as creative director and lead curator for ICArt, said that the piece, like all of those on the Harmony, relates to a common theme: "The World We Live In."

"We're all kind of going crazy and turned around," Capuzzo said. "It's a question of speed and having a good time. It's very pertinent to the world we live in. It's also whimsical."

Royal Caribbean's concept of creating a "red thread" that ties every piece of art together thematically throughout a vessel is just one way of organizing a ship's collection.

At Carnival Cruise Line, art responsibilities are parceled out to different function areas. For example, as director of specialty dining, Greg Poplewko is in charge of art in the alternative restaurants.

That includes Ji Ji Asian Kitchen, a fairly recent addition to Carnival's lineup. Diners there are treated to a bit of theater when they arrive at a table. The server instructs guests to roll a die, and the winning number writes down all of the orders for the table.

It relates to the theme of luck (Ji means lucky in Chinese). So Poplewko commissioned a local Miami artist to fill a canvas with symbols of luck -- a horseshoe, a rabbit's foot, a four-leaf clover -- for a wall of the restaurant.

"Our whole story within the menu speaks to how lucky you are to dine in our restaurant, because we've taken all of this time to travel the Orient and come up with this fantastic food," Poplewko said.

Sculptures are popping up in different areas of ships, such as this light sculpture on an elevator landing on Holland America Line's Koningsdam.
Sculptures are popping up in different areas of ships, such as this light sculpture on an elevator landing on Holland America Line's Koningsdam. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

At Holland America Line, art reinforces the company's Dutch heritage. Even on the Koningsdam, its most contemporary ship, there is a large model of a Dutch sailing vessel on an elevator landing.

At Cunard Line, in a nod to tradition, designers made great use of old photos and design themes from Cunard's historical offices in New York and Liverpool in redesigning the Queen Mary 2.

And at MSC Cruises, where an Italian experience is offered, notable art includes "La Dolce Vita. 1950-1960," a collection of 84 black-and-white photos of film stars. Originally exhibited at the Museo dei Fori Imperiali in Rome, it now hangs aboard the MSC Divina.

An MSC spokeswoman said the line's art selection is heavily influenced by the Aponte family, who own the company.

At most publicly held cruise lines, art selection is typically outsourced to consultants, with oversight from top management. Princess Cruises has used Bronson Fine Arts in Los Angeles, and Norwegian Cruise Line employs Atlanta-based Soho Myriad Inc.

ICArt's Capuzzo said consultants know both the art world and the cruise world and can bring them together. "We have the expertise. We're very much aware of the pulse of the market," Capuzzo said. "We're international. I'm constantly traveling to art fairs all over the world."

She said, "I know how to present the art collection in a way that supports the brand."

RCCL estimated the value of the art on Royal Caribbean's 24 ships at $142 million, while that on Celebrity Cruises is valued at $52 million.

Since few people list art as a top reason to cruise, it raises the question of what cruise lines are getting for that investment.

Sarah Hall-Smith, vice president of art consulting at Soho Myriad, said she credits the average cruiser with knowing on some level whether the ship they're on is well designed.

"Whether you invest the extra money in a recognizably good art collection or whether you cheap out and do prints and posters, the general population does notice that," Smith-Hall said.

"I think it's worth the extra investment to have an art collection that doesn't look like something you bought from or Wal-Mart," she said.

Perhaps the first person to put a major emphasis on art in the post-liner era was Christina Chandris, wife of Celebrity Cruises founder John Chandris and an art maven.

Chandris, a trustee at the foundation for London's Tate Modern museum, filled Celebrity's ships in the 1990s with works from modern masters such as Richard Serra, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein.

Many of those works, originally on the Celebrity Galaxy and the Mercury, were moved to Celebrity's Solstice-class ships when the older vessels were transferred to TUI Cruises.

"She gave us a remarkable legacy," said Kelly Gonzalez, vice president of architectural design at RCCL. "We definitely respect it."

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio is very hands-on when it comes to selecting the art for the company's ships.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio is very hands-on when it comes to selecting the art for the company's ships. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

If there is a contemporary counterpart for Chandris, it would have to be Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, who has made art his personal project in recent years.

Starting five years ago with two newbuilds for Oceania Cruises, the Marina and the Riviera, Del Rio scoured the world looking for modern art that would set those ships apart.

He did the same for the Regent Seven Seas Explorer which debuted in July, hand-picking works for every cabin, including two Picasso prints for the ship's signature suite.

At a press conference aboard the Explorer, however, Del Rio said it was time to let someone else do the job.

"It's very time-consuming," Del Rio said. "I'll tell you, every weekend for the last two-and-a-half years, almost without exception, has been dedicated to going out and finding the art aboard this ship."

But judging from the art selection process on the upcoming Norwegian Joy, Del Rio can be expected to keep his hands in the game. Smith-Hall said she has suggested some "challenging" pieces for the Joy, which is bound for China, and that Del Rio seemed to enjoy and appreciate that.

"It's been really fun to work with somebody who's so enthusiastic about artwork and is hands-on with the art collection that goes on the ship," Smith-Hall said.

In the view of Peter Knego, a collector of cruise ship art and proprietor of the website, art has come a long way since the dawn of the 20th century when the transatlantic liner trade came into its own.

"In the earliest ocean liner days, the art tended to be more like the art you would see ashore," Knego said, such as paintings of castles, English manors and hunting trips.

"It was all commissioned specifically for the ship," he said. "But they were meant to distract you from the fact you were at sea. You went to sea like we go on airplanes, to get from A to B, and they didn't want to give you that feeling you were on a ship."

In the 1920s and '30s, cruise ships came under the sway of the art deco movement, and after World War II, nationalism emerged as a trend, with European lines commissioning art from their indigenous art communities.

"The Italians had this whole cabal of great artists," Knego said. "The French, same thing. You stepped onboard, you were in that country. It created a sense of pride for that nation, because those ships represented those countries."

By the 1970s, liners had mostly disappeared, and the cruise lines began marketing middle-class vacations. At Carnival, art was the province of designer Joe Farcus, who created heavily themed, high-energy interiors.

"Most people aren't art connoisseurs these days," Knego said. "They're just out for a vacation. That's why Farcus has really become so successful -- not because people have great taste but because he set an atmosphere that did lend itself to fun and partying."

Dreamscape on the Carnival Vista harkens back to the style of former Carnival designer Joe Farcus.
Dreamscape on the Carnival Vista harkens back to the style of former Carnival designer Joe Farcus. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

Farcus designed his last Carnival ship a decade ago, and today's art on Carnival is generally more subdued. But on the Carnival Vista, one feature in keeping with the Farcus aesthetic is Dreamscape, a pair of towering mushroom-shaped columns in the atrium and casino.

Originally conceived as a lattice-like chandelier, Dreamscape evolved into an LED light sculpture, one that could be programmed with 90 different works of art, everything from beaches and coral reefs to abstracts that look like panels of wood or starry skies.

Nigel Stables, Carnival's director of technical entertainment, said, "There's quite a lot of vessels out there that do have chandeliers. We wanted fresh. We wanted a piece of art. We wanted something new. And that's how the LED concept sort of became born."

The designs move, change color and can be reprogrammed to keep them fresh, Stables said, adding that technology is starting to become a bigger part of the art world.

"A lot of these museums now are starting to use a lot of projection and a lot of LED work as art pieces," he said. "I think there's been a move away from the traditional still imagery."

Another trend on cruise ships has been toward more sculpture.

"Twenty years ago nobody was interested in spending the money on what it costs for sculpture, and today that has definitely changed," Hall-Smith said. "Clients are very interested in three-dimensional works vs. prints on paper or canvas, which was the bulk of what was being done 15 to 20 years ago."

Designers are jazzing up some of the pedestrian areas on cruise ships for display, including stairwells, corridors, elevator cabs and even public restrooms.

"We do very cool things with the restrooms" on Royal, ICArt's Capuzzo said.

Even the hulls of ships have become canvases at Norwegian Cruise Line, which has commissioned hull paintings from pop-art master Peter Max and nature artist Guy Harvey, among others.

Cruise art is also increasingly global in its scope. Several lines are building ships intended for Chinese consumers and are busy looking for Asian art that will resonate with those guests.

And global contemporary art gained a new home in Miami, home of most major cruise companies, when in 2002 Art Basel set up a branch of its art fair in Miami Beach. The fair has mushroomed into a citywide phenomenon each December, and some said it has encouraged cruise lines to be more adventurous in the type of art displayed on their ships.

"I think most people would have thought of art, prior, as something that's a beautiful piece that's framed and hangs on a wall," Gonzalez said. "And I think people understand that art's so much bigger than that."

At its best, Knego said, art on cruise ships gives guests the same feel for beauty and discovery they find at a gallery or museum.

"When you're at a certain age and you've cruised a long time it's nice to step aboard the Viking ships or even the Celebrity Solstice-class ships and get the ambience and feel like you're in an adult, sophisticated environment," he said.

"There's a sense of 'I'm walking up this stair and, oh my God! I just noticed this painting. Well, what's on the next staircase?'"