Cruises for people who love art: The latest cruise ships and their amazing art exhibits

Anyone who has cruised on Ovation of the Seas – or spotted the megaship in a port around Australia – will have viewed its biggest artwork. A giant mother panda reaches down from the top of the SeaPlex arena to her baby on the deck below, in a sculpture that weighs about six tonnes and was created by UK-based artist Jo Smith.

Mama and Baby is just one of Ovation's 11,000-piece art collection, which is estimated to be worth about US$4.5 million. Royal Caribbean's recently launched Symphony of the Seas, now the biggest cruise ship in the world, boasts an even more substantial collection: 13,347 contemporary works that are worth about US$8 million. 

While artworks of varying quality have long been part of the background décor on board, these days spectacular pieces are popping up as significant features all over the ship, in atriums, restaurants, corridors, stairwells and even bathrooms. Connoisseurs might expect to see museum-quality collections around luxury vessels, but mainstream cruise lines are also spending big bucks on art for resort-style ships that are better known for high-octane activities and non-stop entertainment. Why?

"We invest in world-class art collections on our ships because we want to broaden our guests' horizons by introducing them to the unexpected," says Adam Armstrong, managing director of RCL Cruises Australia and NZ. "We purposefully seek out unique pieces and interactive art experiences that add to the sense of wonder our brands are famous for."

MSC Cruises, which is expanding its super-modern fleet at a rate of knots – its 15th ship, Seaview, is due nex month  and six more megaships are in the works for launch over the next six years – is even planning onboard museums for its Meraviglia-Plus ships. MSC Grandiosa is the first ship in this new class and launches in Italy in November 2019.

MSC's executive chairman, Pierfrancesco Vago, says CEO Gianni Onorato was inspired by a visit to the Louvre in Paris to come up with the concept of collaborating with international art museums to showcase rare and prestigious artworks on their ships. "Imagine seeing an original Michelangelo or an Impressionist painting and then learning about the artist and their life and times," Vago says.

The Galleria promenade on the new Meraviglia-Plus ships will be 15 metres longer than on Meraviglia ships, to allow for the museum space. No doubt the shipbuilders will be working overtime to create the right atmospheric conditions for the masterpieces – and one can only wonder about the stratospheric levels of insurance that will be required to exhibit them at sea. 

Holland America Line, which is launching its second Pinnacle class ship, Nieuw Statendam, in December, is also revolutionising its onboard art with the new ArtLink program. The line is renowned for its valuable fleetwide collections of classic artworks, antiques and contemporary pieces by famous artists such as Andy Warhol, but when Koningsdam came onto the scene in 2016, the designers brought in a lot more work by young, upcoming artists. 

ArtLink is being rolled out across all HAL ships in the next few months. During its launch period, onboard galleries will feature works by a select group of emerging artists. The general collection will gradually be replaced by changing exhibitions curated to reflect the regions of the world  in which the ships sail. Artworks will include sculptures, photographs, paintings, drawings and crafts, and the artists will have a new – and constantly changing - global audience for their work. 

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The Artlink program will also include "interactive art events" and the opportunity to discover more about a region's art and crafts – art-themed EXC Tours (shore excursions) are being developed so guests can visit artists in their workshops and galleries ashore.

Guests can also buy artworks onboard. According to HAL, an ArtLink Art Concierge and art specialists will be on hand to provide guests with information and background on the works and the artists, as well as lead them through the acquisition process. Guests will be invited to view the pieces at cocktail parties, attend special talks, meet visiting artists and simply enjoy the galleries independently. 

Curating art collections for cruise lines is a fascinating business and there are several companies that specialise in the growing field.

Royal Caribbean employs International Corporate Art (ICart), which says it is the world's largest art consultancy group to the international cruise industry. Certainly, a look at its website reveals that ICart has worked with just about every cruise line you can think of and it has been in the business for more than 30 years. Fidelity Arts has been responsible for buying and installing multi-million-dollar permanent collections on Princess Cruises' ships since 1995 and developed the company's fleet-wide art auction program. 

Several ships offer self-guided tours of their art collections, so passengers can enjoy a more in-depth appreciation of the artworks and artists. Royal Princess has a 32-stop narrated walk around its 4000-plus artworks, which can be accessed on smartphones or tablets; a similar program is available on Celebrity Reflection and Celebrity Silhouette. You'll discover pieces by some very big names – on Hapag-Lloyd's Europa 2, for example, where an art curator takes you on a guided tour, David Hockney and Damien Hirst are just a few of the featured artists.

Regent Seven Seas Explorer, billed as "the most luxurious ship ever built" when it launched in 2016, showcases a US$6 million art collection that includes works by Picasso and Chagall as well as contemporary Spanish, Cuban and French artists. Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (which owns Regent Seven Seas Cruises [RSSC], Oceania and Norwegian Cruise Line), spent two and a half years finding the art for Explorer himself – then he chose where every piece was placed Del Rio was also very hands-on when sourcing the acclaimed collections onboard Oceania Marina and Riviera.

The budget for art on RSSC's upcoming Seven Seas Splendor is similar to Explorer's, but Del Rio is letting a curator do the collecting this time round – he has said nothing stressed him more. 

Luxury lines Silversea and Seabourn are no slouches in the art department, either. Silver Muse, which made its debut last year, is the first of the Silversea fleet to feature the Arts Café, an attractive venue that hosts exhibitions of sculpture and paintings by a broad range of talent, particularly young Italian artists. An Arts Café has been installed on the newly lengthened Silver Spirit and Italian art lover Monica Cembrola, who curates Silver Muse's artworks, was also involved with the Silver Spirit project. 

Seabourn's  newly launched Seabourn Ovation displays more than 1600 artworks by some 120 different artists. The collection was put together by a team from ArtLink, working with designer Adam D. Tihany, and the company says it may produce a book cataloguing the art. "Seabourn's discerning guests certainly appreciate sophisticated design and beautiful artwork chosen to complement it," says Richard Meadows, president of Seabourn. 

Whether you count yourself a connoisseur or just enjoy being surrounded by intriguing, beautiful and sometimes bizarre works of art, you'll find plenty to feast your eyes on when you embark on your next cruise.

FIVE HANDS-ON ART CLASSES AT SEA

OCEANIA CRUISES, ARTIST LOFT

Brush up your artistic skills at the Artist Loft centre onboard Oceania's two larger ships, Marina and Riviera. Artists in residence teach drawing, collage, oil and watercolour painting in classes designed for all abilities; also available on Oceania Insignia's world cruises. See oceaniacruises.com

PRINCESS CRUISES, SCHOLARSHIP@SEA

Princess was the first cruise line to offer pottery classes at sea. Passengers can decorate pre-made ceramic tiles, mugs and plates, which are fired in onboard kilns. Or you can take it to another level at hand-building and wheel-throwing classes on Coral Princess and Island Princess. See princesscruises.de

CUNARD, CARTOONISTS AT SEA

Learn the art of cartooning from much-published masters who are hosting drawing sessions and workshops onboard a selection of Queen Mary 2's transatlantic voyages this year. Cunard also runs regular art classes, often watercolour painting, on its other ships. See cunardline.com.au  

CRYSTAL CRUISES, ODYSSEY ART AT SEA

On select voyages onboard Crystal Serenity and Symphony, specialist art instructors hold classes and 'progressive' workshops in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture and crafts. Top quality materials are supplied; illuminating art history seminars relating to destinations visited are also offered. See crystalcruises.com

CELEBRITY CRUISES, CELEBRITY LIFE

Specialist art classes are built into individual Celebrity ships' Celebrity Life programs by the cruise director. Celebrity Solstice, for example, which left Sydney in April, flew in a watercolourist for classes during the 18-night journey from Sydney to Seattle. All Celebrity ships hold art classes; glassblowing lessons have recently been introduced on Celebrity Equinox and Celebrity Reflection. In just 20 minutes you aim to produce a beautiful (or functional) objet d'art – and it's bubble-wrapped for its safe trip home. See celebritycruises.com/int

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