Living Art

A night inside the real-life reproduction of the Edward Hopper painting Western Motel at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Left: Markus Schmidt inside the VMFA Hopper Hotel Experience. Right: “Western Motel,” 1957, Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967), oil on canvas.

From left: Photo by Markus Schmidt; image courtesy of Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Artists Rights Society

Being stuck inside a painting is easier than living, but it can be lonely too, as I recently found out myself when I entered the world of realist painter Edward Hopper for one night.

The focal point of the exhibition Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, open through Feb. 23, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond is the recreation of Western Motel—one of Hopper’s best-known paintings—as a three-dimensional motel space that guests are able to book, just like a hotel room, to experience their very own night at the museum.

As someone who has always pictured myself inside paintings—from Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Fauvist, Expressionist, even the slapdash of total Abstraction—I just couldn’t wait to try this out.

The whole thing is a bit strange, I know. But it isn’t exactly a new idea. For example, in 2016, in order to promote an exhibition on Vincent Van Gogh’s three Bedroom paintings, the Art Institute of Chicago worked with designers to create two three-dimensional installations meant to mirror the appearance of the artist’s famous bedroom in Arles, France, and rented the rooms out through Airbnb, making international media headlines.

But when Leo G. Marzow, curator of VMFA’s Hopper exhibition, pitched a similar idea to his boss, it took museum director Alex Nyerges a while to warm up to it, Jan Hatchette, the museum’s communications director, told me over dinner at VMFA’s Amuse restaurant last week, just hours before my check-in (yes, they really call it that). But Marzow’s persistence paid off. All available stays, more than 50 in total, were booked out within days of the unusual exhibition’s announcement. “We have guests from all over the country and even as far as Italy, a combination of Hopper enthusiasts, regular VMFA visitors, and people who have always wanted to spend the night in a museum,” says museum spokeswoman Lillian Dunn.

VMFA offers several packages between $150 and $500. My own package, exclusive for journalists, kind of sits in between. After dinner I got to play a round of “highfalutin” mini-golf at Hotel Greene, a well-designed restaurant and bar on Franklin Street which partners with the museum for the Hopper exhibition. But as I was by myself, I soon headed back to VMFA for a nightcap at the museum’s Jazz Café. Clearly, I needed to get a buzz on for the surreal experience that was to come.

At 9 p.m., as the museum closed for the public, it was time for my check-in. I made my way downstairs, where a security guard opened the premises leading to the Hopper-themed hotel room. Behind the room, there’s a lounge area, equipped with snacks, water, soda, board games, vintage lifestyle magazines, and other cool stuff that’ll help you kill time while being locked inside a painting. I kicked off my sneakers and got into my pajamas before entering the main attraction.

I had already seen the hotel room when touring the exhibit, but from the other side, pressing my nose against the huge window to get a good look at the detailed replica of Hopper’s famous painting behind it. Western Motel may be the artist’s most widely reproduced and most studied work. Inspired by his stay near a motel of the same name in El Paso, Texas, Hopper crafted it in 1957, depicting a sunlight, open-plan hotel room. The woman sitting on the bed, gazing at the viewer, is the only detail missing from the real-life reproduction.

Earlier in the day, during my private tour, Marzow told me that the mid-century furniture, including the table, the gooseneck lamps, the luggage, the chair, the draperies, and the clock, were all sourced from “eBay sorts of sites.” The bed was handcrafted from scratch with lumber by VMFA’s production shop. “The most difficult part was getting the light just right,” Marzow told me. The mural in the background, depicting a mountain range basked in sunlight, was painted by Richmond artist Emily Herr.

First I closed the blinds to cover the large window to the exhibition room (following a tip from Marzow who pointed at the security cameras on the other side). Then I sat on the wide bed with the velvet comforter, taking in the scene. I set up my iPhone to take some selfies on the bed, replicating the original painting, and sent them to my followers on my social media platforms. The response was as immediate as it was wide, from “how cool” and “totally awesome” to “This is disturbing” and “Why are you inside a painting? Get out!” I even took questions, with “Where do you go pee?” topping the list of most popular inquiries. 

That, of course, is important information, and there’s no convenient answer. The hotel room doesn’t have its own facilities, so you have to don robe and slippers (provided by VMFA and yours to take home), exit the lounge, and head across the hallway to the public bathrooms. Which in the middle of the night is an eerie experience. 

For those hoping you’re allowed to roam around freely, like Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum, you will be disappointed. There’s no venturing beyond the space between the lounge and bathrooms. My designated security person, Randi, sat outside, dutifully keeping guard, making sure I wouldn’t attempt to visit the mummies on the upper floors for that extra kick.

In the days leading up to my stay, I had pondered what I would do during my night at the museum. I had downloaded several movies on my iPad, and I brought along a few books. But in the end, I spent my awake hours responding to questions on Instagram before passing out at around midnight, only to be awoken by my alarm at 6 a.m. (Heeding Lillian’s warning that the lights would come on promptly at 9 a.m., I opted for an early check-out as I had no desire to become a living part of this Hopper installation and be gazed at by visitors.)

Markus Schmidt inside VMFA’s Hopper Hotel Experience.

Photo by Markus Schmidt

As for the six hours between the time I closed my eyes and my sudden awakening, I recall very little, other than that it was quiet, very quiet. I have rarely slept this well. Deep in the bowels of the VMFA in the middle of the night, you’re surrounded by nothing but absolute silence, violated only by the occasional squawking of Randi’s walkie-talkie in the hallway outside. 

On my way home to take a shower before heading to work, I thought about one question I received from a friend the night before, inquiring about my stay inside the Western Motel: “But what’s the point?” my friend asked.

Marzow, the curator, probably has the best answer. Agreeing that the experience is “very psychologically charged,” he said that’s exactly how Hopper may have intended his paintings to be. “He wants us to think about things that we usually don’t think about, like a town we drive through or a motel we’re in for only eight or nine hours.”

In this regard, Hopper’s mission has been accomplished.


For more about Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, pick up a copy of our December 2019 issue or visit VMFA.museum.

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