As the global Lead Partner of Art Basel, UBS hosts a pre-Art Basel media lunch in their Hong Kong IFC office every year in order to announce their annual program. This is a once a year occasion for me to visit UBS’s premises and have a glimpse into a tiny part of the global financial services firm’s vast collection. The meal is served in a tailor-made palette, referencing the art pieces that decorate the tables and walls by star artists like Damien Hirst and Xu Zhen.
TEXT : Selina Ting (Editor-in-Chief of COBO Social]
IMAGES : Courtesy of UBS Art Collection
The Original text was published at COBO Social on 14 April 2016
The UBS Art Collection is known as one of the most distinguished corporate art collections in the world. It contains a total of 35,000 art pieces, which translates into one artwork for every two employees in the firm. UBS has taken art into the core of its identity, which it generously shares with its clients, showing that art is as important to the company as the precious human assets it has to offer.
The collection, which is insured for hundreds of millions of dollars, includes paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lucian Freud, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden and Christopher Wool. Since 1999, it has been under the care of Mr. Stephen McCoubrey, who was then a 25-year old graduate who had just to work on the inventory. During his challenging, 17-year career at UBS, McCoubrey has witnessed the evolution of UBS’s engagement in art and also expanding scope of its collection, which has coincided with the geographical expansion of its business.
We spoke to Mr. McCoubrey at Art Basel Hong Kong about UBS’s commitment to art and asked him why an Art Collection matters to the firm.
As one of the curators of UBS, you take care of both the corporate’s art collection and acquisition. What are the main directions and acquisition strategies you have developed for the collection?
Well, we buy what we call emerging and mid-career artists, rather than the most famous and expensive artists. We try and buy their work at a point in their careers when they are taking that next step forward in their development. This means that we’re a part of that experience and can help them by funding their practice. We buy directly from the artist or their dealer on what we call the primary market, so the artist is the most significant benefactor of the transaction. So, even if the work doesn’t become culturally valuable or we’ve chosen the wrong work by the right artist, we help to support the artist at key points in his / her career and assist with the production of art in the studio.
If we bought things on a secondary market in an auction, the whole endeavour would fail if the speculation failed. But buying on the primary market, we are still part of a fundamental part of the art world – the production of the art itself – even if the artist’s careers does not develop strongly. The last point to say is that the collection is overlaid onto the geography of UBS and so relates to the kind of character that the bank has. We operate as a bank in most countries of the world and collect in very large proportions of the world, so we’ve collected very internationally.
The scope of the collection corresponds with the global outlook of the financial business, especially its expansion in emerging markets. When did UBS start to focus on Asian contemporary art?
We’ve been collecting Asian art, and looking at Asia in a broader picture, since the 1980s when Japan was the first country to come into the mainstream contemporary art market. Here in the lounge, we have Yasumasa Morimura’s photograph Angels Descending Staircase (1991). It is not quite the oldest work in the collection, but it is from the early 1990s. As far as the rest of Asia and Greater China is concerned, that really started in the early 2000s. That was partly because there wasn’t a great deal of contemporary art production in Greater China at that time. Oddly enough, there were a few works from Indonesia and India in the collection that dated back earlier, but nothing from Greater China. There were one or two fortunate buys by bankers here in Hong Kong, but no concerted art collecting from Greater China until twelve or thirteen years ago.
UBS has been collaborating with Art Basel for 22 years now. Has the arrival of Art Basel in Asia changed the way that you collect?
It’s made it unquestionably easier. One of the things I often say about Art Basel Hong Kong, and doubly so now that Art Central is next door, is that you’ll be able to see more quality Asian contemporary art in Hong Kong during this week than you can at any other time of the year, anywhere else in the world. Even with the explosion of museums in mainland China, there is nowhere that has this kind of scale, and it’s still new in many parts of the region.
Many parts of the Asian specific region do not have a museum network, so there’s no real chance of seeing more than a handful of works. I used to say, when we did an exhibition at the end of 2012, that if you want to see a world-class piece of contemporary art on a Saturday morning in Hong Kong, you need to know someone with one in their living room. So, as a collector, being able to look at that much art in one go is an incredible education every year, which otherwise would require endless trips or endless emailing. So yes, it has become a very important tool for people who collect, and this is when art fairs are most useful.
We did the 2012 exhibition that included some of the best works in the collection and was very successful in its own right. But the difference in the size and type of the audience that was attracted to our first really big Art Basel Hong Kong, just two years later, was phenomenal. The acceptance of contemporary art has grown exponentially over the last four years in terms of the people who want to talk about it, collect it, and are not embarrassed about either engaging with it or to asking the right questions. So Art Basel has had an incredible effect on the perception of art in Hong Kong. It’s actually a fairly global phenomenon, but the speed of change in Hong Kong has been phenomenal.
The scale of UBS’s participation in art is very different from all the other corporates. You have an extensive sponsorship portfolio and also launched the Planet Art app. In a way, art has become part of your corporate identity. Why should a company incorporate art into their culture and what motivates corporates to commit to art?
Well, as I was saying, this is a global phenomenon and contemporary art has become increasingly mainstream. People are crowding into art museums around the world. Yes, there was a lot more going on in New York during the 1980s, but this is still a bigger evolution, even in cities like New York. It’s still evolving in London and it is now one of those topics that unifies the world, as far as non-political topics are concerned.
From that perspective, it makes a lot of sense that this is something people do everywhere and there’s a commonality between the art that’s being made because it’s from the same mind-set. The art that is being made here over the Victoria Harbour and Fo Tan [an industrial district in HK where artists have also set up their studios] is still coming from the same point as a group of artists who are working in an abandoned factory of a very similar kind in Berlin or even Brooklyn. That global, shared ethic is one of the key things. It’s a passion that we share with our clients and one of those things we’ve done for a very long time. We can therefore share some of our expertise and provide a degree of access to the art world to clients who are just starting to discover the world of collecting and are really passionate about viewing art. So that’s really the key to it.
From the late-1990s up to now, what are the milestones in the development of UBS’s commitment to art? How does a corporate like UBS evolve and become increasingly engaged in art over the decades?
Well, the key difference for UBS over that period was this development went from being something that we only looked at in a few key western cities, such as New York, London and Zurich, to being something we did in cities that were smaller, but where we still had a strong affinity with art, like Frankfurt. Now it’s not even a question of whether or not we put art into every office, even in places where there isn’t a developed art world, because it’s now become a fundamental part of the culture. This is not just something that we do for a few clients in a few big metro areas where our clients are. It is embedded into the culture of the bank everywhere. This art is hung where everybody works and we invite them to events, such as Art Basel and exhibitions of our projects with Annie Leibovitz. So it isn’t just a marketing campaign. It is part of the character of the organisation and there are not many topics that can do that. I don’t think you could do that with orchestral music, for example, or racing cars, or a number of other things. So, from that perspective, I think it’s something that a lot of other organisations would find useful.
What is your advice to other corporates interested in supporting art or building a corporate collection?
I would say make sure that you have specific rules about how you collect, so that it doesn’t simply become a confused group of things. It’s also important to put somebody in charge of it to ensure it’s looked after and actually displayed in a meaningful way. Really try and engage one Senior Manager to be the person who leads it – whether they’re already in love with art or not yet – so that the rest of the employees go with it and see it as an example to follow, because it makes a huge difference if it’s driven from the top of the organisation.
Thank you very much.