Bank on art

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 55, Summer 2018

Page 47

Even tough-minded global financiers get the value of art, as Mary Rozell explains to Lucinda Bredin

Stating the obvious, I say to Mary Rozell, the Global Head of the UBS Art Collection, surely the primary purpose of a bank is to make money. So why has a hard-nosed financial corporation sunk loads of money into buying art – more than 30,000 pieces – that the bank then has to look after? "Well, firstly," Rozell looks back with a clear, blue-eyed stare, "we do need to have something on the walls."

We are sitting in an antiseptic, and rather cold, conference room in the New York headquarters of UBS on Sixth Avenue.

The décor is standard-issue – long polished mid-tone wood table, white walls and grey carpet – but on the wall is a row of what looks like works by Anish Kapoor. And, this being UBS, that is exactly what they are. Rozell, who looks at them as if for the first time, says, admiringly, "It's the colour that makes such a huge difference." It also neatly illustrates her point: a dull corporate room does need something on the walls, and when that something is art by an internationally renowned artist it conveys a potent message.

Banks have, of course, been collecting art since they were invented in Tuscany. The world's oldest bank, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, for example, has a magnificent collection, housed in a 14th-century palazzo. And it is still acquiring: one of its most high-profile additions, in 2008, was a gold-ground panel by Sienese painter Segna di Bonaventura, which was bought for £1m. But the Monte dei Paschi keeps its collection buried in vaults and the works are rarely allowed to see the light of day. UBS, on the other hand, barely has any art languishing in storage.

Not only are the great majority of the works in the collection on display throughout UBS's 800 offices worldwide, but pieces are loaned to museums on a regular basis. This summer, for instance, the bank's extensive collection of the Californian artist Ed Ruscha is on display at Louisiana Museum in Denmark. UBS owns a whopping 61 works by the artist, which is certainly a statement of commitment.

The Ruscha works are an example of how corporate art collections are often founded on a very unbankerly quality: passion. These works came to UBS in 2000 as the result of the merger with American bank PaineWebber. Its CEO, Donald Marron, had put together an astonishing collection in the 1980s and 1990s, almost single-handedly. His acquisitions provide a snapshot of American contemporary art from that era. He also bought European painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and an incredible group of 54 works by Lucian Freud, whose Double Portrait (1988-1990) is described by Rozell as "a jewel" in the UBS holdings. Needless to say, Freud's fleshier nude portraits are not represented here.

It illustrates how Marron, now acknowledged as a pioneer, realised as far back as the 1960s that art was not just something to hang on the walls, but was a tool for soft diplomacy. As Rozell says, "Don Marron wanted to be surrounded by art. He liked the conversations that started around the art within his company. There were a lot of people who didn't like it, who said they didn't like certain pieces, but he enjoyed that dialogue and felt it added another dimension to the workplace. He was very dedicated – he used to go around all the galleries in Soho most Saturdays."

Now in his 90s and still privately collecting, Marron obviously has a very particular taste. In these less maverick-friendly days, is Rozell allowed the luxury of buying in such a personal way?

"Somewhat – but the first step for me when I first arrived in this job in 2015 was to look at what the collection consisted of and to make sense of it." One of the challenges was that other banks which had merged with UBS had their own corporate art collections. As Rozell points out, "It was interesting, you could start to see real overlap in the 1990s, which is when the art world became globalised. It was the advent of the large-scale photograph. Everyone had a Gursky, Struth and Candida Höfer."

Having spent three years studying the collection, Rozell says what emerged was the need "to buy the work of our time and the most interesting works of high quality". Hardly a ground-breaking manifesto, but, when it comes to a corporate collection, really quite ambitious. Obviously the limiting factor is that sensibilities can easily be offended. As Rozell says, "It has to be the right content for the right space. For instance, we have a Massimo Vitali photograph of a beach in which you might see a breast... One office in the US found that objectionable. We do have to remember that we are a bank, not a museum and not a home. We have to be very careful about materials, we are not going to have crazy installations. And, of course, we can't get too political. We don't want anything violent, erotic..." Um, what's left?

"Exactly! A lot of our art does have such content, but it is not overt – we don't want in-your-face material that's going to upset people." Does she think that photography is so popular with corporate collections because viewers don't always see the subtext? Rozell agrees. "Take the example of Thomas Demand's Cherry Blossoms, which we purchased. I don't know if you know the background, but the Cherry Blossom tree was from a newspaper image of the tree in the backyard of the Boston Marathon attacker. So the work had this other dimension. My team was, like, 'Don't send it to the Boston office.' Those are things – like much of contemporary art – that you need the background to understand what the visuals are alluding to. And that's why, happily, our collection is not devoid of interesting content..."

Rozell and her team acquire some 60 works a year on behalf of UBS. They only 'de-acquisition' "on the low end", but there are some works that Just Aren't Suitable. Rozell mentions pieces that "reference drug use and one picture in which someone is pointing a gun". What does she plan for the next phase? "With all the hype focused on the emerging – everyone is looking for the best next star – it's an impossible game.

Those prices get inflated very quickly, so it doesn't feel good to buy such works. So I am very interested in looking at artists who have been at it for a very long time, have been overlooked, and make beautiful work. Last year, for instance, we bought a Sheila Hicks and a Sam Gilliam. For me, it's thrilling to see these older artists getting recognition."

Another of the banks, the pre-merger Union Bank of Switzerland, took a real leap in the 1990s and commissioned a series of site-specific artworks – Kunst am Bau – which, as Rozell put it, were "fantastic pieces by international artists in these small Swiss towns.The only trouble was when the real-estate changes [a branch shuts down]. The Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez made 'an architectural intervention' in the 1970s by designing a whole building, even the garage – it's really like a Gesamtkunstwerk – in the town of Fleur.

Then UBS no longer had the building, so what do you do? So the walls were removed, along with his interventions in the ceilings, and all the other pieces of the installation." You can't fault UBS for effort: part of this project will be shown at this month's Art Basel.

Does she ever get feedback from UBS employees? "I do from time to time. We had to take down the Christopher Wool in the New York office so we could change the fabric behind it. A woman came up to me at lunch, panicking. She said, "You know that [painting] is my inspiration every day when I walk into the building. It really means a lot to me. I would be crushed if you moved it.' It goes to show that people get very attached to the art."

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

The Ed Ruscha exhibition VERY is at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
(Gl Strandvej 13, 3050 Humlebæk, Denmark) from 17 May to 19 August.

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