Mary Rozell On the Art of Collecting for Corporations |

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Mary Rozell On the Art of Collecting for Corporations

Like any art world expert overseeing a prominent collection, Mary Rozell is always on the hunt for boundary-pushing works. But the particulars of her job can present some unusual limitations, like pieces needing to fit on office walls and making sure the subject matter is appropriate for a corporate workplace. That’s because her client isn’t a museum or a private collector but a 162-year-old financial institution.

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“When I went to my first art fair after I took the role, I’d say 90 percent of the artworks fell away because it just wasn’t going to work in an environment like this,” Rozell told Observer. For example, “it would be hard to have a picture of a drug dealer with a gun,” she said.

Rozell is the global head of the UBS art collection, one of the most important corporate collections in the world. Her responsibilities include managing its collection of more than 30,000 paintings, works on paper, photographs, sculptures, videos and installations, most of which are displayed across hundreds of global UBS offices and frequently loaned out to museums. In addition to sharing its art with the public, UBS maintains the collection to inspire its more than 115,000 employees and impress clients. As of 2023, the investment bank and financial services company manages $5.5 trillion in assets.

Corporate art collections can also be a branding tool for visitors and clients. “If you’re collecting contemporary art, you’re kind of forward-thinking and focused on issues of society,” said Rozell, and the artwork of UBS is often an icebreaker for clients, many of whom are collectors. “It’s really nice for them to not always just talk about money or their portfolios when they come into the bank,” she said. The company now also offers art advising services in the U.S., something they’ve long provided in Switzerland.

View of large oil behind lobby desk
The UBS Headquarters in Zurich, Bahnhofstrasse 45 is where one can see John Armleder’s Agenda (2018). UBS Art Collection © John Armleder/Photo: Martin Rütschi

UBS’s collection can be traced back to the 1960s, shortly after the concept of the modern corporate art collection was popularized by David Rockefeller as he began accumulating artwork in the 1950s while serving as president of Chase Manhattan Bank, now known as JPMorgan Chase (JPM). Today, financial institutions like Deutsche Bank (DB) and Bank of America (BAC) boast upward of 50,000 works each in their holdings. Corporate collections were initially created to serve many purposes, according to Rozell. “First of all, these companies need things on their walls,” she said. For those in Europe, government mandates may dictate that a certain percentage of profits go towards cultural initiatives; other corporate art collections were projects kicked off by one executive with a passion for artwork.

The history of the UBS art collection

Both are true when it comes to the UBS art collection, which over the years has absorbed numerous smaller collections as a result of mergers and acquisitions. There are three primary collections in its current holdings, including those of the Union Bank of Switzerland and the Swiss Bank Corporation, which focused largely on internationally recognized and regional Swiss artists and became a single art collection when the firms merged in 1998 to form what is now known as UBS.

The final collection is that of stock brokerage firm PaineWebber, which was acquired by UBS in 2000. With works from rising stars in New York’s art scene spanning Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualization and Neo-Expression, the collection is so well-regarded that Rozell herself has been following it since college. It was the brainchild of Donald Marron, who began acquiring artwork more than sixty years ago while acting as president of investment firm Mitchell Hutchins, which would go on to merge with PaineWebber in 1977.

Exterior view of building ground floor with large colorful mural inside
Sarah Morris’s UBS Wall Painting, (2001/2019). UBS Art Collection © Sarah Morris/Photo: Tom Powel Imaging

When Rozell, who previously worked as an art lawyer and as a director at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, took on the responsibility of overseeing UBS’s artwork in 2015, she was tasked with the challenge of merging these disparate collections into a cohesive one. She also wanted to bring in new works that evolved the institution’s holdings from one that was “very European, American, Western and quite male-dominated, like the art market was as these collections were being put together.”

UBS only acquires works from galleries and by living artists, with recent acquisitions including the likes of Sylvie Fleury’s sculpture First Spaceship on Venus and Pipilotti Rist’s vibrant A Merciful Fate Cake. “Generally we’re not buying an artist at their first show, it’s the second or third show when they have some traction but before they get too much recognition,” said Rozell, who is based in New York and has team members in Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Frankfurt. Competition has heated up in recent years, she noted. “If we’re buying a work by an artist but a private collector has already bought sixteen works by that artist, we’re going to have a tough time competing—particularly if they have a private museum.”

Sometimes, UBS has to get creative. A geometric painting by Sarah Morris hanging in the UBS Art Gallery in the lobby of its U.S. headquarters in Manhattan, for example, was originally commissioned by the bank for its Zurich location in 2001. UBS later lost the building and the work along with it, but still owned the commission. So when its New York gallery opened in 2019, Rozell asked Sarah to reimagine the piece. “We didn’t have a budget to commission an artist to do the wall,” said Rozell. “So we’re like, what do we got? We own this work by Sarah, so we’ll just pay her for the physical aspect of putting it on.”

Rounded orange sculpture sits atop white podium in lobby
Fred Eversley, Untitled (parabolic lens), (1969) 2018. UBS Art Collection/Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles © Fred Eversley/Photo: Tom Powel Imaging

UBS employees get attached to the artwork

For employees, art can get personal. Workers at UBS offices can become emotionally attached to the works they see every day and occasionally get frustrated when pieces that have been on the same wall for years or even decades are moved to new locations. “I can relate to them,” said Rozell, who after moving offices post-Covid was upset to learn the artwork that had hung in her old office was no longer available.

That sort of engagement was a key aspect of Marron’s original vision for PaineWebber, according to Rozell. “That’s what he really wanted, to provoke employees and provide stimulation,” she said, adding that she recently visited a workspace for an off-site visit with no artwork. “It was just a horrible, horrible feeling.”

Some UBS employees even request to purchase particular works upon their retirement. In Switzerland, where UBS has the most offices and dedicated storage space for its collection, the bank holds staff sales around the holidays and offers up works that no longer fit its criteria—typically prints that are duplicates, faulty or don’t fit into the collection conceptually. “It is such a big hit and the employees love to work at it, too,” said Rozell. “They wear Santa Claus hats, they do the whole thing.”

UBS deaccessions work on a case-by-case basis. Whether selling a work at auction or gifting it to an institution, “getting rid of art is really hard and it takes a lot of thought and time,” explained Rozell. Earlier this year, UBS gave 166 photographs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a gift five years in the making. The works were originally curated by John Szarkowski, a former director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art who in the 1990s amassed a collection of photography for PaineWebber focused on land use across the U.S.

Large blue and red abstract painting hangs over lobby desk
Howard Hodgkin’s As Time Goes By (blue), (2009.) UBS Art Collection/Courtesy Howard Hodgkin Estate and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London/Photo: Tom Powel Imaging

Opening the UBS collection up to the public

UBS additionally plays major sponsorship roles for art world behemoths like Art Basel. In addition to acting as the art fair’s lead partner, UBS has since 2017 jointly developed the Art Basel and UBS Global Market Report and Survey of Global Collecting, authored by economist Clare Mcandrew. The reports, which McAndrew previously wrote in affiliation with a different art fair, were Art Basel CEO Noah Horowitz‘s idea, according to Rozell, who previously worked with Horowitz when she hired him to teach art business classes at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

This year will mark the 30th anniversary of the collaboration between UBS and Art Basel, which began in 1994 when the Swiss Bank Corporation endowed the Basel art fair’s Video Art Prize. To celebrate, the two entities will later this month co-present a public commission from Petrit Halilaj, whose illuminated installation When the sun goes away we paint the sky will be displayed on the facade of Basel’s former Hotel Merian. The UBS Lounge at Art Basel, meanwhile, will present a group show of textile-based works entitled “Threads” featuring works by artists like Hank Willis ThomasJoana VasconcelosKapwani KiwangaSheila Hicks and Shinique Smith. “This is an extraordinary legacy to reflect on,” said Horowitz in a statement, describing Art Basel’s partnership with UBS as one that “has grown resoundingly into a dynamic collaboration that unites the global art ecosystem.”

View of two paintings hanging on white wall
Installation view of Lucian Freud: Works from the UBS Art Collection, UBS Art Gallery. Head of a Naked Girl, (1999); Head of a Naked Girl, (2000). © The Lucian Freud Archive/All Rights Reserved 2024/Bridgeman Image/Photo: Max Yawney

One of the most significant changes spearheaded by Rozell has entailed opening up a collection that previously felt closed off. “I feel like some of our pieces are so important that we have a responsibility to share them with the greater public,” she said. The UBS Art Gallery is free of charge and hosts three to four rotating exhibitions annually, with a current show collectively displaying more than forty works by Lucian Freud for the first time in the U.S. Lucky clients and the occasional school group are also given tours of the 14th floor of the UBS headquarters in New York, where works by the likes of Jeffrey GibsonJulie Mehretu and Roy Lichtenstein hang. “We don’t really advertise it because we get more requests than we can possibly do,” said Rozell.

There are also exhibitions centered around the UBS collection at institutions like Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and Germany’s Martin-Gropius-Bau. The bank also makes frequent loans to museums such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and London’s National Portrait Gallery, and hosts art events ranging from artist talks to educational programs. “The collection is very active because it’s on these walls and in over 700 offices around the world,” said Rozell. “It’s not sitting in storage like a lot of museums.”

Yet despite these and other public-facing initiatives, the UBS collection and corporate art collections in general remain to a certain extent shrouded in secrecy—something that intrigued Rozell and led her to steer away from working with traditional private collections. “Corporate collections are also private collections, and there was a bit of mystery around them,” she said. “For me, it was kind of the stone unturned. That’s the art you don’t get to see; it’s off-limits.”


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