Curating art fit for an impressive cruise adventure

Curating an art collection for a new cruise ship is a complex challenge. Michele Witthaus talks to SMC Design’s art team to find out how it developed the impressive collection on Saga Cruises’ new ship, Spirit of Adventure

Curating art fit for an impressive cruise adventure
Created for the Britannia Lounge, Debbie Smyth’s thread and beadwork ‘Adrift’ series documents Saga’s heritage

SMC Design is an international design studio that provides integrated design solutions to the marine sector. The company has an art consultancy that offers clients a complete artwork service, including budget control, in-house procurement, administration and overseeing cataloguing, as well as marketing where required. 

Jennie Drummond, head of art at SMC Design, and Emmie Ratter, senior art consultant and project manager, have worked on an impressive 30 passenger ship projects between them over the past 13 years. Both have art history degrees and as Drummond says, “we have the ability and desire to articulate narratives and draw together overarching themes within onboard collections”.  

Saga Cruises is a familiar client for the pair, as they previously delivered the art collection for Spirit of Adventure’s sister ship, the brand’s first newbuild, Spirit of Discovery. Both ships are entering service this spring within a few weeks of each other 

While the two vessels have many similarities in their design, itineraries and passenger profiles, much effort has gone into ensuring the two art collections have clear individual identities. “The narrative for Spirit of Discovery was the British Isles, their landscape, heritage, flora and fauna,” says Drummond. “We picked out colours and themes running throughout to fit that narrative. Spirit of Adventure will continue this but delve deeper into exploring the materiality of artworks.” 

The ability to choose from a wide range of styles and influences can lead to great creative results. But how does the process of evolving a new collection ensure that the specific requirements of the client are all incorporated on each ship? 

Drummond says that Saga Cruises was open-minded when it came to the evolution of the art onboard. “The company is really engaged and passionate about the art and allowed us the freedom to choose works that somewhat challenge the viewer.” The resulting visual journey acknowledges the cruise line’s brand demographics, while taking account of the level of exposure passengers might already have to art.  

When designing an art collection for a cruise ship, a major challenge is the requirement for many of the artworks to be planned while the vessel is still in the design stages. “Being art consultants within an interior design company, we have the benefit of being there when the space is being created, so the artwork can be integrated into the ship conceptually,” says Drummond.  

The fact that SMC Art had a detailed understanding of the design of Spirit of Adventure resulted in complete access to the DNA of the ship. “It is important for us to look at the general arrangement of the ship early on, to see how one area flows into another,” says Drummond. “We can make sure that tonally, artworks are working with others nearby, even in different areas. This allows us to understand the best places for feature pieces and create little pockets of surprise within the artwork collection.”  

This is not just a matter of aesthetics: Ratter points out that some of the feature artworks can be so large and heavy that they are regarded (for the purposes of the ship construction) as bulkheads in themselves. 

“Collaboration is really key for the feature pieces,” says Drummond. “We have discussions with the designers, architects, shipyards and owners. There are so many people involved in aspects like fixing mock-ups, weight calculations (the shipyard has strict policies regarding scale and materials), and certification aspects.” 

The 13-metre carved stone relief sculpture by Petr Weigl that dominates Spirit of Adventure’s atrium is an example of the level of planning involved in fitting a super-sized artwork into a working ship interior. Weigl’s work, which took nine months to create and install, was added in sections and panels after being produced off-site. “It was great to work on something so ambitious,” says Ratter. 

When it comes to showcasing smaller works, today’s cruise ships are large spaces and Spirit of Adventure is no exception. Drummond says that the ship’s collection comprises more than 1,200 pieces. “We treat them as one body of work, like an exhibition, narrowing down areas to see which artists would complement them. We also look at how artists respond to the overarching brief.” 

To increase passengers’ engagement with the art collection, they work hard to embed the artworks in the operational side of life onboard. This includes holding exhibitions of art from the permanent collection that passengers can purchase, as well as including artists’ designs on crockery and in the cabin directory. The creators of the art are involved at every stage of planning. “We’re always looking for surprising, interesting and novel ways for artists to engage with the ship so they are very aware of the actual vessel their art will be on,” says Drummond. 

In a collection as large as that on Spirit of Adventure, there are opportunities to include a wide range of media and types of work. “We don’t approach projects with preconceived ideas,” explains Drummond. “It is about challenging artists, to see how we can tailor works to a specific project. For example, how could we adapt traditional craft techniques to create new and novel artworks?” 

The final test of success, of course, is the passenger experience of the art. Drummond says guests on the ship are encouraged to take self-guided tours of the artworks, which are all clearly labelled, including information about each individual artist. The Saga Cruises marketing department also launched the artwork prior to the launch of the ship, with a comprehensive catalogue (designed, written and produced by SMC Art) of all the works commissioned and purchased. 

Ratter concludes: “We don’t want to go down the obvious route but to surprise and intrigue. We will create interior material reference boards for artists so they can look at the colours but it’s about creating stories so that the artwork is more than just interior décor. The art is never an afterthought.”


This article was first published in the 2021 issue of Cruise & Ferry Interiors. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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Michele Witthaus
By Michele Witthaus
18 June 2021

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