When a lodge or hotel does something good, it’s often easier to see who the good things or deeds benefit, such as the luxurious Casa Gangotena’s work with communities in its hometown of Quito, Ecuador. Or the silversmith project supported by Ibo Island Lodge in Mozambique. Or the efforts of Cortijada Los Gázquez to resuscitate a dying Spanish village’s way of life.

‘Minga vonani kuxouga ka xigaza,’ Philemon Hlungwani

In the case of Ellerman House, in Cape Town, the good works are less obvious. They are actually the art works hanging on the hotel walls. The luxury boutique hotel now has 500 pieces by South African masters and 80 by contemporary artists. The specially built Ellerman Contemporary gallery opened in December 2009. The gallery, hidden away below the front of the hotel, is fronted by the striking Hier sculpture, a 3-meter head made of slate by Angus Taylor. We met a while back with Ellerman House GM Nick Dreyer and talked about how the luxury boutique hotel came to become a prominent supporter of local artists and built its Ellerman Contemporary gallery as a showcase.

Travel SAPeople: Ellerman House is famous for its paintings by South African masters, such as Pierneef and Irma Stern. That collection was put together by the hotel’s owner, financier Paul Harris. But these new art works are taking Ellerman House in a new direction.

Dreyer: With the masters we gained traction as art collectors. But we had no contemporary works, and we wanted to collect them. We had this hollow space at the bottom of the property, and it suddenly became obvious that’s where the gallery should go.

SAPeople: What did you want to achieve with the gallery?

Dreyer: We wanted to give artists access to the market and we wanted to give our customers a chance to see some great South African art.

‘Alter Ego 1,’ Andrew Verster

SAPeople: Do you sell the paintings?

Dreyer: No. We make the introduction between the guest and the art, and we might suggest galleries where they can buy the artists, such as the Goodman Gallery or Michael Stevenson. But that’s all. We collect art we love, and there is an integrity to collecting the art but not selling it.

SAPeople: Who buys the art for Ellerman Contemporary?

Dreyer: It is a collaborative affair. Myself, my colleague Mitch Terry, Paul Harris. We get advice from Mark Read, the owner of Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg. We go to the Johannesburg Art Fair. We find out about an artist and investigate.

SAPeople: Are there any success stories?

Dreyer: I don’t think Ellerman can claim the success of any of these artists. As I said, we merely introduce clients to them.

SAPeople: Are there set tours of the gallery or do clients simply wander down?

Dreyer: It’s a small intimate hotel, so one of the managers goes with guests. Often they go down by themselves.

SAPeople: The Independent of London carried a story on the ‘big six’ hotels in the world that have art collections. Besides one in Melbourne, which is named after the artist whose works it carries, Ellerman was the only one of the six with the idea of promoting living artists.

Dreyer: We have had very important art collectors stay at the hotel and they have purchased hundreds of thousands of rands worth of local art as a result.

SAPeople: How do you arrange the art in the gallery?

Dreyer: As soon as work comes in I put it up and take other things down. It’s not a huge gallery, and because some of the works are very large, we can only put up maybe two dozen artworks at a time. It is a bit like a store, and sometimes there are even things on the floor propped up against a wall.

SAPeople: The artist Angus Taylor, who did the striking head outside the gallery entrance, is now a consultant to the hotel on a building project. So your relationships with the artists go even further?

Dreyer: Angus spent three months on the property putting up the head. He made a grid of steel and then layered the rocks inside. We liked the way he worked, always with organic materials, so we asked him to be a consultant on the new villa we are adding to the property.