Until recently, hotel guests could expect to find at least one thing waiting for them as they checked into their rooms -- hideous artwork on the walls. In fact, it often seemed that many hotels were involved in a conspiracy to purchase as many cheap reproductions as possible for their guest rooms.

Now, however, things are changing -- mostly for the better. The Seattle Sheraton has become a showcase for artists of the Pacific Northwest. The Intercontinental Hotel in New Orleans features works by local artists. And the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles and all the Ritz-Carlton hotels publish special art books and offer private art tours of each hotel.

At first glance, the Seattle Sheraton looks like any other high-rise hotel -- until you get inside and discover its huge permanent installation of contemporary art, valued at more than $1 million.

The hotel also boasts its very own curator. "We want this hotel to be different for the guests," says Margery Aronson, an independent art adviser who supervises the Sheraton collection. "As a result, each guest room at the Sheraton features at least two original works of art."

"It's been refreshing to me," Aronson says, "that many new hotels are giving as much thought to their art collections as they are to more traditional hotel considerations."

The Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Florida now boasts a $1.5 million art collection. The Fairmont in San Francisco has more than 500 original 20th-century art pieces, each handpicked by Roselyne Swig. Swig is the founder and president of a San Francisco-based company called Art Source.

"The art at most hotels doesn't respect the clients," she says. "We want our art to be both a learning experience as well as an esthetic one for our guests. The art that we buy should reflect a style that is not overbearing, but that is original. The strength of our collection," she says, "is that our artists are considered initiators."

Swig, who also is married to the owner of the Fairmont, supervises the hanging of each piece in the guest rooms and insists on one nonnegotiable rule: Nothing can be hung over beds. "That's the last place people will see it," she says.

To be sure, hotels are no longer just buying art -- they're commissioning it. The outside of Le Mondrian in Los Angeles is actually a monumental painting by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam. (Inside the hotel, there are more than 2,000 pieces of original art by Agam and other contemporary artists.)

Each of the 197 rooms and suites at the Mandarin hotel in Vancouver has an original watercolor piece by Vancouver artist Jamie Evrard. And watercolorist Dong Kingman has just become an "artist in residence" at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki.

At the new Park Hyatt in the District, 13th-century Buddhist sculptures flank a David Hockney piece. And at the newer Hyatt in Scottsdale, Ariz., original art is everywhere. "I started working on this project as the hotel was being built," says Bernice Greenberg, who found and purchased the art for the Hyatt. "We made a specific effort to find art that was contemplative and could be 'discovered' as one roamed through the hotel," she says.

"Many hotels now find themselves on the cutting edge of art patronage," says Lynne Kortenhaus, the fine arts adviser to the Ritz-Carlton hotel company. "We're displaying museum-quality art in a nonmuseum environment."

In a program announced not long ago, Ritz-Carlton is offering private tours of its $7.5-million art and antique collection to American Express card holders who stay at their hotels in Boston, Atlanta, Naples, Fla., or Laguna Niguel, Calif.

But you don't need an American Express card to tour the extensive collection at the Regent in Hong Kong or the Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The Regent in Hong Kong is home to a magnificent assemblage of oriental art dating to the 17th century. "We have carefully acquired the art," says General Manager Rudolf Greiner, "not only for its esthetic beauty but also for the oriental symbolism represented."

The Regent has published a beautiful coffeetable art book of its collection and will gladly arrange tours for guests.

At the Mauna Kea on the big island of Hawaii it's not only the types of art displayed but how the more than 1,000 pieces are displayed that sets the hotel apart.

The open-air halls and walkways display large 10-by-10-foot antique Hawaiian quilts, each with a different symmetrical design. Some have 2 million stitches each.

Bronze Buddhas from Thailand and Burma, silver temple toys from India and large brass hope chests are everywhere. Temple drums from Thailand stand guard in front of some guest rooms. And in one corner of the hotel, remarkably preserved, is a tall wooden scholars' table.

"The concept is to present the art as if you were in someone's home," says Don Aanavi, the Mauna Kea's consultative curator. Aanavi, a former curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, is a professor of Asian and Pacific art history at the University of Hawaii. "I first came to the island of Hawaii to teach art," he says, "and then I discovered that the Mauna Kea offered the most thorough representation of Asian and Pacific cultures."

He began taking his students to the hotel, and now Aanavi takes hotel guests on twice-weekly tours of the Mauna Kea art. (The hotel also publishes a guidebook.)

The Mauna Kea is not currently adding to its 1,600-piece collection. In fact, the collection is already large enough to rotate many items for exhibition. The rotation also gives the hotel an opportunity to restore artwork affected by the open-air elements of the Mauna Kea, or to regild the gold statues and sculptures.

Of course, there are some hotels where one has always expected to find great art. At the Gritti Palace in Venice, a portrait of Andrea Gritti, the 77th doge of Venice, looks down on guests from the very spot in the hotel where it was hung 400 years ago.

Many rooms at the Hotel Crillon in Paris display original 18th- and 19th-century mahogany furniture and artwork. And the George V hotel is nothing less than a museum. It's hard to go anywhere in the Paris hotel without discovering Louis XIV clocks, tapestries and paintings.

Sometimes, an older hotel displays its art collection only after going through a major restoration. It's then that the hotel staff suddenly discovers lost paintings hidden and/or forgotten in basements, behind false walls or inside double ceilings.

In 1981, when the St. Anthony Intercontinental was restored in San Antonio, Tex., the design team assigned to the project discovered 586 art objects in storerooms, basements and even guest-room closets. The same thing happened when the Willard was restored in Washington.

Perhaps one of the last places you might expect to find decent hotel art is in Las Vegas. But at least two hotels might surprise you.

Caesars Palace has embarked on a new art acquisition program for guest rooms. One of its most recent purchases is the Brahma Shrine, a bronze and gold statue that now greets guests entering the hotel and casino.

And the Golden Nugget now boasts its own vice president of design, Roger Thomas. Thomas, an art historian, travels the world hunting up original art and artifacts for the hotel's 20 super suites. Thomas has also commissioned 20 different, original murals for the hotel, and another 1,500 pieces for guest rooms. "We're trying to upscale the art here," he says. "It's become important to us because it helps set the hotel apart from other hotels in the city."

The boom in guest-room art isn't limited to hotels. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has commissioned renowned Norwegian, English, Swedish and Danish artists to create an estimated $1.7 million in original artwork for the company's new ship Sovereign of the Seas, which makes its maiden voyage next January.

And Holland America has already committed more than $1.5 million worth of art to each of its ships.

"From a marketing standpoint," says Bob Brennan, senior vice president of marketing for Holland America, "the art doesn't sell us any more berths. But we see it as a wonderful esthetic enhancement to each ship. The addition of the artwork has added measurably to the popularity of the ships, especially returning passengers."

Holland America now sponsors art tours of its ships as well as guest lectures. And the cruise line now publishes a book called "The Art of Cruising," a catalogue of the shipboard artwork. Peter S. Greenberg is a free-lance writer.