Thousands of people have been checking in to The Sweet Tooth Motel in Dallas. They’re not looking for a good night’s sleep. They’re paying $20 for an immersive experience made by local artists that will only be there until July. In our weekly State of the Arts conversation, I spoke with Jencey Keeton, one of the hotel’s creators, about making art for the Instagram set.
Keeton and her husband, Cole, worked with Built by Bender to design and fabricate the hotel. And they invited artists Jeremy Biggers, Shamsy Roomiani, Jojo Chuang, Chelsea Delzell, Rob Wilson and Beau Bollinger to create installations in the space. Ruben Burgess created jumpsuits with hand drawings to outfit the hotel’s concierges.
The Sweet Tooth Hotel has a reservation desk, and room keys, and a gift shop, but the rooms really are nothing like a regular hotel.
That is correct. So we wanted to set up an experience where you’re checking into our hotel that’s not quite so normal. We’ve set up five different rooms, and each room is themed off a different candy and then we’ve also looked at different lighting styles from some of our favorite directors because we wanted each room to really be its own experience when you walked into it.
These rooms are really amazing. They are just totally fantastical. And you had artists design each one. Can you describe one of them for me?
I feel like the most impressive room is one that we take everyone into first. This room is called the Sunset Lounge [pictured above]. It’s an infinity room. And we have cactus that are sprouting ring pops inside the room.
My favorite room– I originally had called the room Stitch, and now we’re just calling it the Surprise Room. With Sweet Tooth Hotel, the rooms are rooted in candies and desserts. But this room is just about overindulgence and opulence in a different way. And so we have probably over a 1000 to 1500 stuffed animals that are surrounding you. It’s almost like you’re inside a giant crane machine. And then we also have just some hidden secrets in that room as well. If you like to scare your friends it’s a great room.
Tell me about how you assigned artists to the various rooms.
They came up with their own concepts. I think that the reason that this was so joyful and so successful as a group project was that we didn’t place a lot of boundaries on people and really allowed them to explore to the end of their concept. We gave dedicated space to the artists outside of the rooms as well. So Shamsy Roomiani, Jeremy Biggers, and then Chelsea Delzell have the back space area. And so they played a little bit with what a landscape would look like outside of the hotel. Shamsy–her piece is called Rainbow Confection–and if you know her work, she plays a lot with organic materials and the relationships of botany, and plants, and water. And so she wanted to make cotton candy clouds, but in her own way. The biggest cloud I love is actually sound responsive. And so if you go and talk to it, it has these plant rainbow drops that hang down and you can yell. We taught all the kids how to scream at it, which maybe wasn’t a great idea.
This place really feels like it’s been designed for Instagram shots. Did you think about that?
I knew people would want to take photos and so we thought about that, but at the same time, not every space is meant to be a selfie moment.
It’s a natural thing to do to want to take photos inside of this hotel. Do you have a sense though that people are learning anything about the artists who’ve actually made the work in there?
One the great things about checking into Sweet Tooth is that we do have a concierge team that first walks the guest through each room and explains the process, and the medium, and the artists that are in the rooms. We wanted to make that very intentional even if we just took 5 minutes of people’s time to walk them through so that people were really understanding that each room was a concept and created by an artist and not some kind of faceless team that just wanted to make a pop-up.
Why did you do this?
Why did I do this? Sometimes I wake up in the morning and ask myself the same question. At the end of the day I think that we watched the Kusama exhibition, All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins…
That was at the Dallas Museum of Art
…and we watched how Dallas really craved having that type of experience and we really wanted to just start to explore with our arts community here if we could start to build these experiences. I wanted to do this for Dallas. I wanted to just put something together and give it to the city, and I also wanted to work with other creatives in the hopes that this would be a platform that’s ongoing. And if someone buys a ticket, they’re supporting local art and they’re making it possible for us to build more of these in the future.
It’s our first one so we’ll continue to grow and to tweak and evolve. And we want to get a bigger space, we want to involve more artists in the collaborations and just create a community so that our artists who are up and coming and younger are not moving away from Dallas and that there are those opportunities.
Immersive art experiences have been popping up all over the country for years. What do you think is behind this? Why this, as opposed to an art gallery or a straight-up theater performance?
I read an article about immersive experiences and it was saying that the number one thing that people are doing now when they go to the museum is they’re taking selfies. And while I think that it’s great people are going out and experiencing art, the way that people are experiencing, in general, is shifting because everyone wants to document what they’re doing. And it’s not enough for them to sit on the other side of the screen. I think they want to be inside of it and they want to have that interaction.
So, it cost $20 to check in to the Sweet Tooth Hotel. How did you come up with that price point? You know, a lot of times it’s free to go see art.
It is. So we invested–when I say “we”–my husband, Cole, and I actually took our money out of our savings account, and we took out a small business loan and we met with all of the artists and the creators and we figured out what we could build, how fast we could build it, and what the budget would look like knowing that we would need the ticket sales to pay ourselves back and break even. So, you know, a lot of people ask about the price point and really, it’s that ticket is going back into support. Paying for the artists, and paying for the spaces, and paying for the future exhibitions. And so the $20 ticket price really reflects just us trying to get back to ground zero, and then also hopefully have enough to reinvest and do this in a bigger way in the future.
So you opened in the middle of May. How many people have been through?
Well, we opened May 18 and so far we’ve had more than 3000 people come through. At the end of the experience, we’ll have more than 10,000 people who will have walked through. And I think with that we’re also learning if we’re creating art and things are handmade how durable they are, what materials we use, how do people want to interact with them. Some people are not going to respect the art as much as you think. They’re going to pull things off of walls, maybe try to climb on things. But I think just 10,000 people experiencing local art in Dallas, one, is a great, huge number, but it’s also a drop in the bucket for the amount of people that live within the DFW area. And I think that we’ve seen that there’s an appetite for this and a hunger for it, and we’ll continue to pursue this.
Our interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Here are some photos from the construction phase of The Sweet Hotel