Corporate support of international art fairs has been increasing in recent years with many brands joining the fray and organizing ultra-chic events, in the fairs’ VIP lounges. But for the Swiss banking giant UBS, contemporary art has long been central to its corporate identity.
The bank became a lead partner of Art Basel in Switzerland back in 1994, when the fair was still in its infancy. By 1999, the partnership had extended to support “Unlimited”, Art Basel’s exhibition platform for large-scale artworks, and when the contemporary art fair launched its first satellite outpost, Miami Beach in 2001, the bank’s presence was there once again from the start. This year, UBS is closing the Art Basel loop by also becoming a partner of its second outpost, Art Basel in Hong Kong, taking over from Deutsche Bank, thus making itself the global lead partner of Art Basel.
This on-going support is part of a comprehensive commitment to contemporary art that includes a partnership with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, started in April 2012. The Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative is an ambitious five-year enterprise aiming to identify and support curators and artists in different regions. Its first exhibition, “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia,” premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last year, before moving on to Hong Kong in late 2013. It is currently in Singapore, where it runs through July 20 at the Center for Contemporary Art. The Singapore exhibition features a slightly tweaked line up, with new works by Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich and Indian artist Sheela Gowda , in what June Yap, curator for the exhibition, described as a symbolic homecoming gesture that “speaks directly to issues and concerns for us within the region.”
Beyond these two global efforts, UBS also supports various regional projects such as the education program at the Fondation Beyeler, a Swiss museum of modern art that ranks amongst the finest in the world, and exhibitions organized at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, amongst others.
“The depth of our commitment to cultural and educational programs gives us unique access to experts from the world's most esteemed museums, galleries, and art fairs. These resources, augmented by in-house curators, help our clients, our employees, and the public explore and collect art,” explains Stephen McCoubrey, co-curator of the UBS Art Collection.
The bank has also been a committed collector of contemporary art over the years and boasts a collection of over 35,000 art works, ranging from paintings and drawings, to prints, photographs and video art installations. The combined works are widely acknowledged as forming one of the world’s most important corporate contemporary art collections.
A large part of this collection was taken on when UBS acquired the brokerage firm Paine Webber in 2000. The PaineWebber Collection had been started in 1970 by its then chairman Donald B. Marron, who was also a long time trustee of MoMA and a passionate collector himself. In the catalog for a 2005 exhibition, “Contemporary Voices: Works from The UBS Art Collection,” Marron wrote, “I had the strong view that good contemporary art reflects the energy of the society in which it’s created, and great contemporary art can sometimes anticipate the future.”
Marron helped build a museum-worthy collection, dating mainly from the 1960s onward, that included works embracing a wide range of styles from Abstract Expressionists (Willem deKooning, Robert Rauschenberg) and Pop Art (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein) to Minimalism (Donald Judd, Richard Serra), portraiture (Lucian Freund), and contemporary photography (Cindy Sherman, Candida Höfer).
But UBS has continued to develop the collection over the last decade, McCoubrey says,focusing on artists who are at relatively early stages of their careers, “at an emerging or mid-career point,” taking into account the size and medium of the artwork. “New acquisitions are proposed to colleagues in Switzerland and New York and everyone must agree that the proposed acquisition is right in terms of artist, image, and price,” McCoubrey explains.
Importantly, the bank aims to provide longer-term support to artists by buying several works over several years. “That has been a long tradition for the collection,” he notes.
While historically, the UBS collection centered on the U.S. and Europe, it has built up its Asian art holdings in recent years and the collection includes works by renowned artists like Lee Bul, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Nobuyoshi Araki, Zhang Enli, Hema Upadhyay, and Xu Zhen. As the bank’s business in Asia has grown, so has its collection, as the opening of a new office is often the catalyst to buy new art work from the region that will resonate with the local staff and clients.
“While we do not disclose what we spend or how many pieces we acquire annually, the proportion of the budget dedicated to Asia Pacific is at least 40%,” McCoubrey adds. McCoubrey says the UBS Art Collection supports the firm in “creating a positive atmosphere for its employees,” but admits that it also serves as a point of discussion between clients and their UBS relationship managers. “At the same time, new acquisitions and museum loans allow UBS to support the wider art community,” he said.