Wealth Blog

Art for banking’s sake

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 8:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 10:05am

An excited press release arrived this week inviting reporters to preview:  “Pop Sensation” from the Swiss private bank UBS’ Art Collection. First thought is why does a bank need an art collection?  Surely it’s a bit like the fish and bicycle argument.  Ah, it must be an interesting asset class that allows clients to diversify in this challenging investment climate. Wrong. “The philosophy underlying the UBS Art Collection is to build and maintain a seminal body of work which is not only thought-provoking and inspirational but which also upholds the Firm's commitment to support and encourage the emerging and established artists in the communities in which UBS has operations,” the releases gushes.

Lucky UBS clients, employees and communities are able to enjoy and get a profound insight into contemporary art. “The pieces are displayed in our offices around the world – creating a positive atmosphere at work.” What considerate employers. “We continuously lend works to museums across the world at their request, investing in and supporting artist’s work at key early points in their careers, exhibiting art in cities like Hong Kong where there is still a relative lack of exhibitions and museums.”

It’s good to know banks have such a well developed altruistic streak. But this isn’t a few chocolate box snowy Swiss Alpine landscapes; the UBS Art Collection contains 35,000 items, covering the recent 50 years. “It tells an important story about contemporary art that it would be difficult to display in quite this way in our offices,” the spokesperson says. Yes, 35,000 art pieces would be a squeeze. So for Pop Sensation, which contemporary and up and coming artistic luminaries will be featured?  Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Andreas Gursky, Cao Fei, Claes Oldenburg, Edward Ruscha, Navin Rawanchaikul, Shi Guowei and Thukral and Tagra. Up and coming? I thought Andy Warhol was dead, but I guess this is just a matter of perception. Pop Sensation runs from 17 to 30 November at Pao Galleries, 5/F, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Road, Wanchai and is open to public, admission free.


Give Clients the Art Option 

Not wishing to single out UBS because many private banks have these vast art stashes, but 35,000 pieces at what cost? Each involved an outlay of Swiss francs 30,000 or less, I am told and they’ve been seriously collecting since 1971 with three chaps dedicated to the task. Nice work if you can get it.  So whose money buys all this art? Clients’ cash? No no, it’s the bank’s money, I was told. “The collection is not considered as a financial investment.”

Let me get this right, a bank has assets that are not considered a financial investment. Correct. “The aim is rather to make it accessible and inspiring to as many clients and employees as possible.” And now Pop Sensation will make the great collection available to a wider public. ”To show people that don't already know UBS well, a different aspect of our culture, and our commitment to support and encourage artists in the communities in which we have operations,” the spokesperson added.

So how do they decide how much to buy?  “The number of purchases and sales depends on how many new, renovated or existing office facilities need furnishing every year.” Ah so it’s down to the interior designers. I hate to be a killjoy, but given the current tough times and UBS’ recent history, surely mustering hoards of art is hardly a bank’s core business. Having this great pile of 35,000 pieces, the value of which can only be guessed at, isn’t it about time to consider offering the clients a chance to invest in and share the appreciation in value of all this art? After all, it’s the profits made from them which pay for it.