In Bed With Banks: How The Art World Is Shaped By Big Financial Players

UOB, UBS, OCBC, and Bank of America are some financial institutions involved heavily in today’s art world. Why is this the case?
by Reena Devi

Photo: UBS

The banking industry and art have historically co-dependent, enmeshed relationships. This has been the case from the time of the Medicis during the Renaissance to the East India Company supporting Rembrandt in putting up his paintings as fiscal collateral to modern banks playing a major role in the contemporary art world since the 1950s.

The globally established Swiss bank, UBS, has been collecting contemporary art since the 1960s. Mary Rozell, global head of the UBS Art Collection and the author of The Art Collector’s Handbook, said, “The UBS Art Collection is widely recognised as one of the most important corporate collections of contemporary art in the world, with more than 30,000 works, including paintings, works on paper, photography, sculpture, video, and installations by emerging talents and established artists.”

The bank has acquired works by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vija Celmins, Lucian Freud, Andreas Gursky, Mary Heilmann, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, Wayne Thiebaud, Cy Twombly, and Christopher Wool.

Giving a boost

UBS is not alone in its art collecting. Bank of America (BofA) has a collection of 50,000 artworks. Closer to home, the United Overseas Bank (UOB), which started collecting art in the early 1970s, now owns more than 2,600 artworks.

UOB Main Branch facade artwork by UOB Painting of the Year artist Valerie Ng. (Photo: UOB)

Speaking with The Peak, Christine Ip, head of group strategic communications and brand, UOB, said, “The bank began collecting artworks for two reasons: The first as a way to reach out to and support the fledgling local art scene, and the second, to acquire quality artworks by local artists that would be displayed within UOB’s new office building located in Bonham Street.”

Even during the pandemic, when museums and public collections were scaling down, banks continued collecting, lending, and exhibiting art. In fact, right before the pandemic, in 2019, UBS launched the UBS Art Gallery in its New York headquarters at 1285 Avenue of the Americas, featuring permanent artworks from the Collection and special rotating exhibitions. “We have prioritised an even greater commitment to sharing our artworks with the public,” said Rozell.

UBS Lobby in New York. (Photo: UBS)

Back in Singapore, OCBC Wisma Atria, which opened last year, houses an art gallery with regular exhibitions, which provides artists with a platform to showcase their creativity.

“Our Premier banking customers, in particular, have given us a lot of positive feedback, but we also see members of the public walk in — some of whom are not even OCBC customers — to appreciate the art on display,” said Sunny Quek, head global consumer financial services, OCBC.

Art Gallery at OCBC Wisma Atria. (Photo: OCBC)

Grey motivations

However well-intentioned the banks may seem, there is an undeniable element of image rehabilitation.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Arnold Witte, an associate professor in cultural policy at the University of Amsterdam who specialises in research examining corporate art collections, observed, “From the 1950s onward, bankers needed to create a new and positive image for themselves, and I think bankers like (Chase Manhattan’s) David Rockefeller were really aware of the fact that they could use art to that end.”

The question remains: How does support from such financial institutions impact the artists and curators working closely with such entities?

More recently, the 2008 financial crisis saw the BofA on the brink of collapse and was one of the leading reasons for public mistrust in financial institutions. BofA had to pay US$16.65 billion ($22.33 billion) for financial fraud leading up to and during the crisis, specifically for its role in selling mortgage-backed securities before the 2008 financial crisis.

Merely two years later, BofA launched its global flagship art program, the Art Conservation Project, focusing on providing grant support to nonprofit museums and institutions to conserve historically or culturally significant works that are in danger of deterioration. In 2023, the bank partnered with the National Gallery Singapore to conserve an iconic artwork titled “Gibbons” by Singaporean artist Chen Wen Hsi.

Gibbons by Chen Wen Hsi. (Photo: Bank of America and National Gallery Singapore)

According to Martin Siah, Singapore country president of BofA Singapore, “Since the launch of the Art Conservation Project, we’ve helped conserve thousands of individual pieces of art including paintings, sculptures, illustrated manuscripts, and archaeological works important to cultural heritage and the history of art. We have funded 237 projects across 40 countries since the project’s inception.”

“At Bank of America, we believe that investing in the arts helps to build communities and has a positive impact on the lives of our clients and employees,” he added.

It is not to say that such PR efforts are ineffective. As reported widely by established financial and news media, Deutsche Bank AG evaded sanctions against Iran and Myanmar, rigged foreign exchange markets, did business with Jeffrey Epstein, and was involved in a US$10 billion mirror trading scheme where the world’s worst criminals used the bank to move dark money around the globe.

Despite this, in the art world, Deutsche Bank is prized for its sponsorship of the renowned international art fair Frieze and its art collection of over 50,000 works.

Undeniable benefits

Even so, perhaps the looming presence of banks in the art market made it easier for a slew of heavyweight bankers from the likes of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan to take over leading positions at auction houses and related arts businesses since the nineties.

It was also around the same time that the phenomenon known as the financialisation of the art market became increasingly observed and discussed, culminating in a whole new generation of collectors today who are primarily geared towards an investment mindset rather than a patronage-focused one.

Leo Liu in front of his solo exhibition at UOB Art Gallery, Listening to Clouds. (Photo: UOB)

But the question remains: How does support from such financial institutions impact the artists and curators working closely with such entities, specifically regarding their artistic practice and demand for their work? Most artists and curators whom The Peak reached out to seem grateful for their place in the bankerised art market.

“The World Beyond” Art Exhibition at OCBC Wisma Atria. (Photo: OCBC)

Rex Wei, curator of “The World Beyond” art exhibition currently running at OCBC Wisma Atrium, said, “This partnership (with OCBC) has not only refined my curatorial approach — in selecting artwork that resonates with OCBC’s vision as well as the wider public and the diverse visitors that the bank draws — but also deepened my appreciation for the shared commitment that goes into such a project.”

Leo Liu agreed, “During these six years, the world has changed rapidly as humanity has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and major international events. These experiences have given me many new insights and inspirations. (My latest) solo exhibition (at UOB Art Gallery) allows me to share my latest artworks and a review of my artistic path.”

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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