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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A Discussion with Petra Arends of the UBS Art Collection

Recently I spent some time on the phone to Zurich speaking with Petra Arends, Collection Executive for the global financial firm, UBS.

Arends, who earned a PhD in copyright law and whose employment history includes time in government and private banking, joined UBS two and a half years ago as deputy head of its art banking team. She describes this position as being “too beautiful to be true” because its cross-disciplinary nature matched so well her personal and professional background.

After UBS acquired the American firm PaineWebber, Arends was assigned to a project team charged with defining a strategy for integrating the two companies’ art collections. Last April, she gave up her banking responsibilities to focus full time on managing the newly integrated global collection.

My conversation with Arends ranged over topics from the size and scope of the newly integrated UBS Art Collection, to the company’s developing art acquisition strategy, to an exhibition of works from the collection that will be shown next February at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I will be posting portions of our conversation over the next few days.

We began the discussion on the topic of Arends’s new role in the company.

You hold the title of “Collection Executive.” What responsibilities does that position entail?
This is a pretty new role and a pretty new job. When we started, we really focused on combining the collections, and I managed that. I created the criteria and delivered the criteria to the experts who assessed all of our art.

Right now we are building a new web museum for The Collection. I am responsible for getting input from all the people you have to involve if you create a web museum—looking for the copyrights, delivering text, creating storyboard navigation, integrating people from IT, from web guidelines, from usability tests, etc. Actually, I am dealing with more than 100 people.

I am also the one who put together The Collection’s new Advisory Board, and I give direction to our curators. We started from scratch, so at the end of the day I am responsible for keeping the quality of The Collection, for building the new UBS Art Collection, and for making it visible across the whole world.

You oversee an international organization. How many individuals does UBS employ to manage its collection?
In Switzerland we have three, and we have one in New York.

We have four people working on the collection now but honestly at this moment, for creating the web museum and other projects, there are definitely more people from other departments working with us. There are a lot of people involved in the process at the moment.

Nobody thought that this small project would become so important. We are starting with very few people. We will wait and see what will happen, whether we need more.

How many works are in the collection?
We have, roughly, around 900 works. These are all of museum quality, but the collection will also be constantly reappraised and revalued.

What percentage of the collection is installed at any time?
More or less everything is installed. Our policy is that we do not want to have art in storage.

How frequently do you rotate or reinstall works?
As we will have a totally new approach with this collection, we will have to define new rules. Normally we don’t reinstall. Normally the works hang, but we have to rethink that whole model. No decision has been made about that yet.

I’m assuming you can have the pick of the collection. What’s hanging in your office right now?
Believe it or not, I have nothing hanging in my office. As a general rule nobody in the company gets to choose from The Collection.

If I had a chance to pick, though, I would have Gerhard Richter’s wonderful Helen, or Ed Ruscha’s Museum on Fire, or Cindy Sherman’s photographs. But I just moved into a new office and people are always totally shocked that I have bare, white walls.

We have a saying in America, “The cobbler’s children always have the worst shoes.”
Exactly! I would never dare ask to have a work from The Collection hanging in my office!

Tomorrow Arends describes how the new UBS Art Collection was assembled and what the organization will be collecting in upcoming years.

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