Baku, Azerbaijan, doesn’t roll off the tongue like Shanghai or Dubai, but the Near Eastern capital is revelling in a cultural renaissance that can rival any city in the world. It’s the art you notice first: It spills from galleries, surges from street corners and transforms public spaces into living museums.
In the midst of this boom, the newly opened Fairmont Baku hotel occupies 36 floors in what is arguably the city’s most famous piece of architecture: the Flame Towers, a trio of fire-shaped skyscrapers that gleam silver by day and light up with animated LED displays by night. As I step into the hotel’s soaring 17-metre-high lobby, the first thing that strikes me is a wall covering washed in aqua and pierced with decorative metal finials that reaches more than halfway to the ceiling and spans two reception desks. To its right I spot a jubilant collage by Reza Derakshani; opposite, a delicate paper sculpture by Hadieh Shafie. In fact, everywhere my eyes come to rest hangs a spellbinding piece of art.
“Who assembled the collection?” I ask a concierge in Prada glasses, expecting the name of a double-barrelled aristocrat – or something Swiss.
“Farmboy,” she replies, with a look suggesting she hardly believes it herself.
She means Farmboy Fine Arts, a Vancouver-based consultancy that has curated art collections for luxury hotels from the Four Seasons to the W. Its founder, Todd Towers, is the farm boy in question, reared 10,000 kilometres from the Caspian Sea in Red Deer, Alberta.
The agrarian process was a big lens of inspiration. It was a good incubator for me.” Todd Towers
The sixth-generation cattle rancher left the family farm for art school in the 1990s. He describes the white-cube galleries that he saw in urban centres around the world on his post-art-school travels as “extremely intimidating.” You wouldn’t know it to see him now: With smart blazer, GQ accessories, stubble just so, Towers seems better suited to the back of a limo than the back of a bronco. But the fresh face has remained, along with the conviction that art should be accessible to all.
The nickname stuck, too. Towers’ fellow home on weekends to wrangle cattle. When it came time to name his fledgling art consultancy, he reckoned Farmboy epitomized its grassroots spirit. Towers now employs more than 20 consultants who operate in a rarefied world of Richters and Raphaels. Yet the model has never strayed far from the collective ideal.
“The agrarian process was a big lens of inspiration,” he says. “It was a good incubator for me.”
Towers describes his fondness for art as “a love that came up within me.” But after graduation he traded the solitary painter’s existence for a “cross-pollination” of artists and buyers and launched a cooperative studio. “In farming you can’t do anything alone – the scale’s too big,” he says. “I put that principle of working collectively into Farmboy.”
Early high-flying clients disappeared when the tech bubble burst. Then 9/11 pushed art further down the agenda. “It was three years of starving.” But when farming is in your DNA, says Towers, “you don’t give up easily.” Things bounced back when boutique hotels began to emerge as social and cultural hothouses. Suddenly there was an audience for art outside the gallery.
In 2004, Towers convinced the W Hotels group to start procuring art – as both an investment and a lure for travellers without time to explore the local culture. The W Seoul launched that year with 2,000 works selected by Farmboy staff. The project revolutionized the company – and the experiential direction of design hotels. “In terms of scale,” says Towers, “it grew really quickly.” By 2009, Farmboy had been hired to source 8,000 works for a resort on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.
The collection at the Fairmont Baku is Farmboy’s crowning achievement. And though it might seem an elite setting, there can’t be many people in Baku who haven’t experienced it, whether as a guest, a diner, even a driver. Whoever you are, the work gets under your skin.
“One of our main goals is establishing collections that are meaningful to everyone,” says Towers. “You don’t have to be a high-net-worth individual – it’s about what you see in an image that resonates with you. It could be in Baku or South Dakota. That’s what keeps us excited.”