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January 27, 2014

Postcard from Skara, Sweden: An unexpected collection of Swedish art at the Jula Hotell and Konference

Skrämda, Anders Zorn 1912
by A.M.C. Knutsson

Having travelled quite extensively in the last year, I have had the privilege to come across some very interesting places, both planned and unplanned. Some of the least expected being the gallery-hotel, a hotel that houses a large collection of original art. Arriving late one night in one of Sweden’s oldest towns, Skara, I completely missed the large sign hanging by the side of the road announcing that the hotel I was approaching housed one of the largest private collections of paintings by Anders Zorn (1860-1920) in Sweden.

I was therefore completely unprepared for what awaited me upon entering the modern-looking hotel. The walls were tastefully dressed with masterly portraits and enticing nudes. The works accounted for most of the great names in Swedish art from Anders Zorn to Carl Larsson (1853-1919, the figurehead of the Swedish Arts and Crafts Movement).

Steeped, as I irrevocably am, in the world of art crime one of my first thoughts went to the security arrangements of this magnificent collection. My interest was met with great hospitality and the following morning I was met by the hotel manager, Catarine Larsson, for a talk about the collection.

The collection as well as the hotel are the creations of Lars-Göran Blank, founder of the Swedish company Jula, founded in 1979 to sell woodcutters now has shops across Sweden, Norway and Poland, supplying everything related to house and garden maintenance.

Watercolour by Carl Larsson
Lars-Göran Blank inherited his interest in art from his father and spent most of his childhood frequenting museums. Due to his entrepreneurial success, he suddenly found himself in a position to be able to act on his interests. In 2007 Jula Hotell and Konference was built and before long exquisite art started appearing on its walls. The employees, which included Catarine Larsson, were at first unsure how to react to the art that appeared around them. They had never been involved in protecting valuable art before. ‘We were worried,’ Ms. Larsson explained, ‘we didn’t know if we could tell anyone about the paintings. But then the owner put up a huge sign by the road, so then we understood that it was fine.’ 

Mr. Blank is proud of his collection, and rightly so. In addition to probably the largest private collection of Zorn paintings in Sweden, paintings by Carl Larsson, Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939, Wildlife painter), and some paintings by Blank’s own hand can be found in the hotel.

Through the help and assistance of the Jula Security department and an insurance company, an all-encompassing security policy has been developed for the collection. When the hotel was renovated in 2012, it was designed with the safety of the collection in mind; subsequently, a large portion of the paintings were moved from the dining room to a specially constructed art gallery. The hotel consulted a local museum about how to properly hang and display the collection which resulted in a tasteful and safe new home for the paintings. Great care was taken to secure both the paintings and the rooms themselves. Each painting is alarmed directly to the police and covered with protective glass to protect against all kinds of sticky fingers. When Ms. Larsson notes that ‘the paintings are as safe here as anywhere else’: with around the clock surveillance and reinforced night guards, the art as well as the guests can rest safely.

New art gallery completed in 2012
The hotel maintains good relations with the national police force and would be contacted directly if there were any rumours about an art-coup taking place in the area, allowing Ms Larsson to reinforce her security measures. The hotel works with its collections in various ways, including holding conferences in the art gallery and hosting art talks with speakers from the Zorn Museum. They are mentioned in local guidebooks -- even pre-school classes come to draw in the gallery.

This magnificent collection manages to straddle both the definition of public and private collection. Despite being a privately owned assembly of works, it remains accessible to the public. Over a glass of wine in the evening or a cup of coffee at breakfast, the visitors to Jula Hotel can enjoy art in the same way as a private collector but for the price of the beverage in hand.

The phenomenon of art in hotels takes on various forms, from being a tool of barter in Les Templiers in Collioure, France, to a cheap Van Gogh print in a forgettable place in New York. Most interestingly the practice of housing private collections in hotels could possibly negate the criticism of the private collection as elitist, as the paintings might even prove more accessible than in a museum, and might in actual fact convey art to a new kind of audience, that normally would not put their foot in a museum.

Even as I struggle to stay awake, solving my last Sudoku for the evening, my eye is caught by the nudes walking down towards the lakeside in Zorn’s 1912 masterpiece Skrämda. The very painting that Ms Larsson confessed to be her favourite, and which she would take if she would have her pick in the collection.

A.M.C. Knutsson earned a Master of Arts in General History from the University of St. Andrews and completed ARCA's Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage in 2013.