In these days of multi-million dollar art sales, billionaire collectors aren’t always showered with praise. It is often assumed that their motivations for adding art to their assets are related to a calculated investment or a high-stakes reputation game. Today, the UBS bank, sponsor of Art Basel for 25 years, recalls that passion and philanthropy are also part, through the creation of the Art Collectors Circle.
Details of the group, which was formed in March but is only officially announced this week at Art Basel, are currently scarce. Official information describes the Circle as “a global community for UHNW [ultra-high net worth, $50m-plus] collectors passionate about art to connect and share their knowledge â.
The names of the members remain secret although Uli Sigg – former Swiss ambassador to China, North Korea and Mongolia, and great collector of contemporary Chinese art – declares himself proud to be one of its first members.
Gabriel Castello, divisional vice president of global wealth management at UBS, explains that the Circle has emerged as a cultural offshoot of the Global Philanthropists Community, a private network set up by UBS in 2014. He says the latest initiative is primarily a digital platform. for knowledge sharing, although physical meetings will also take place – including around the three main Art Basel fairs.
Customer demand for a high-flying cultural community is believed to be behind the creation of the Circle, and a clue can be found in UBS / PwC’s latest âBillionaires Reportâ. He describes the growing number of very wealthy individuals as âgame changersâ in art, as well as increasingly in sport.
But it also carries the health warning that “building a museum or buying a sports team is one thing – managing it successfully over time is another”.
The growth of private museums over the past 10 years has certainly marked a radical change in the ecosystem of the art world but, says Castello, “preserving and making collections accessible to the general public can be complicated.” He confirms that 41% of the existing Circle members run a private museum – although he is not off the hook on exact numbers, only stating that the membership as a whole has the potential to reach around 400 people, a level similar to that of UBS’s philanthropic group. .
More than half of the current members of the Circle buy in the fields of modern and contemporary art, says Castello, and the geographical distribution is uniform. But, he adds, “we expect membership to be significant in Asia” given that, according to the UBS / PwC report, “the wealth of Asian billionaires could potentially exceed that of the United States in only four years “. Estate planning, legal structuring and philanthropy (presumably all with tax benefits) are among the topics of interest shared by members.
Legacy and best practice issues arose at Beijing’s Ullens Contemporary Art Center in 2016, when its founding businessman Guy Ullens and his wife Myriam put the museum up for sale. A year of uncomfortable uncertainty followed before a group of Chinese private investors took control of the museum, which has since become a charitable foundation. âWe lived to tell the story,â director Philip Tinari said earlier this year.
Le Cercle is not just an exchange of private museum know-how. Sigg says he would like to see more public-private initiatives come out of it. In 2012, he donated the bulk of his works (1,463 pieces) to the permanent collection of the M + Museum in Hong Kong, which is due to open next year, and sold an additional 47 pieces to the museum for $ 22 million. frank.
âPersonally, I believe in public museums. They provide the memory of our time and you are not hostage to a person’s taste, which could be good or could be the other way around, âhe says. He acknowledges, however, that there are some regions, notably Asia and Latin America, where âthe only option may be to build your own museumâ. And Castello notes that “there are regional differences in the landscape of philanthropy and interesting learnings and discussions follow.”
Castello adds that collaboration opportunities are also on the agenda: âThis is the start, but we also expect projects to emerge from the community. It highlights a major initiative around autism in adults that was developed by members of its global philanthropic community last year. âEducation and access to information are central concerns of many wealthy people engaged in contemporary art,â he says. Sigg believes the more formalized community could help start philanthropic pet projects. âIt seems like a good tool to get others on board,â he says.
The emphasis on the soft power and non-financial benefits of art is a reminder that its investment potential may have been overexploited. âWe don’t think of art as a class of financial assets,â says Castello. “The art market is poorly transparent and illiquid, with limited data sources, and therefore not suitable for precise investment calculations.” He adds that art “pays emotional dividends” instead.
The strategy for UBS’s own collection – of over 30,000 mostly contemporary works accumulated over the past 60 years – has changed accordingly. Whereas it previously operated on a self-financing model, meaning that works that no longer met its fundraising criteria were sold to finance new purchases, “nowadays we rarely sell works” , explains Castello. The vast majority of his works are on display in the offices of UBS, and a selection of kinetic pieces made by Carlos Cruz-Diez in the 1970s for an old building in Zurich is on display this week in the UBS show at Art Basel. They are presented together for the first time since 2011.
It remains to be seen if a group of multimillionaires can create a cultural impact beyond supporting the already bloated art market, but at least some healthy ingredients are in place. âI don’t know if this will be an activist forum in the name of art,â says Sigg, âbut it could be a source of inspiration and opportunity.â