You are a private wealth advisor at a global financial services company, and your long-time client is turning 70. How do you recognize that occasion? Do you honor her accomplishments or celebrate her plans for the future? For Sherry S. Paul, Senior Vice President and Private Wealth Advisor, UBS Wealth Management USA, it was an important distinction. "Milestone birthdays can be challenging to celebrate appropriately. People are reflective and forward-thinking. They want to be celebrated, but not necessarily spotlighted."
Paul decided to invite her client and nine of her friends to a private luncheon on the 14th floor of the UBS building in midtown Manhattan. They were there to celebrate a birthday, of course, but the focus of the event was what was on the walls.
From 1980 to 2000, Donald Marron, the CEO of Paine Webber, was the inspired and driving force behind one of the most prestigious American corporate art collections, acquiring more than 850 major works of mid-century artists for the firm. Many of those pieces were hung in the lobby of 1285 Sixth Avenue and also on the building's 14th floor, which was designed as a showcase for the art. When Marron facilitated the merger of Paine Webber with UBS in 2000, that collection was joined with equally prestigious collections owned by the Swiss Bank Corporation and the Union Bank of Switzerland. Today, the UBS Art Collection contains more than 30,000 paintings, works on paper, photography, sculpture, video and installations — almost all of them shown in UBS offices around the world.
Though nearly 40 years old, the display of art on the 14th floor retains its excitement and emotional power. "The women who came to the luncheon were all art enthusiasts," said Paul. "They couldn't believe that they were being invited onto the gallery floor, have Mary Rozell [Global Head UBS Art Collection] talk to them about the history and purpose of the collection, and then lead them on a private tour."
For Paul, being able to connect to her client's passion and life purpose with an art tour was not an isolated case. UBS employees interact with works of art every day and use it to spark discussion. "The artwork is valuable because it allows us to step into a different conversation than we might have had, had we walked into a room with blank walls. There's nothing planned about how someone may respond to a piece of art. The compulsive reaction is revealing, and it connects you to people in a very unique and special and intimate and even vulnerable way."
John Mathews, Head of Private Wealth Management and Ultra High Net Worth, UBS Wealth Management USA, agrees with Paul. "For most of the families we work with, the art and discussion around the art changes the dialogue. I know that because with almost every client I interact with, especially when we're at our home office, the subject comes up. Many times it turns into a quick stroll around the building showing them different pieces. You take it from a business meeting to a life meeting. There's something about art that helps with that transformation."
The spirit of the collection makes those serendipitous conversations all the more likely. "We only collect art by living artists," explained Mary Rozell, Global Head UBS Art Collection. "The mission is to collect the art of our time. Contemporary art captures the impulses and aspirations of society, so that's our focus."
In an age when focus groups and fine-grained market research seek to eliminate uncertainty, I asked Mathews, Paul and Rozell if unpredictable reactions to bold works of art might be a risk for the company.
"I see the face of a client or an employee when they're walking down the hallway. They just stop and say, 'Wow.'" said Mathews. "That's why I'm so proud of our collection. You just don't know what it's going to pull out of people — but it's usually good."
Paul welcomes a strong response from her clients. "When someone shares with you what they're offended about, it's almost the same as them sharing with you something that's extremely important to them. Instead of blank walls, having artwork that elicits a reaction is a real moment of honesty."
The flip side of offense, of course, is love. As curator of the collection, Rozell knows how attached people become to particular works of art. "There was a young employee from another division who came up to me and said, 'I'm really worried you're going to take that painting [Christopher Wool's "Untitled," 1988] down,' because it was removed temporarily while we changed the cloth backing behind it. She said, 'Every day when I walk into the building, I see that message, and it motivates me — it gets me worked up for the workday. I'd be really upset if you took it down.'"
Is having, and actively using their art collection to engage with clients, a competitive advantage for UBS?
"I think the financial services business is now the humanities business," said Paul. "The most valuable skill set we bring to the table as private wealth advisors is a sense of emotional intelligence."
John Mathews agreed. "Clients expect us to be really good in investments and providing investment advice. It's table stakes for what we do, or we wouldn't be around. But the way we sustain relationships with our best clients is through the non-investment but very important items in their life like legacy and heritage, and many times that involves things like their interest in art."
A major concern for those who believe in corporate engagement with the arts is the longevity of that support. Collections are often started by an enthusiastic CEO, but succeeding leadership may not feel the same obligation to conserve and protect the art. In times of economic stress, there is often pressure to sell. In 2010, a bankrupt Lehman Brothers put its entire collection on the auction block to pay back creditors, and in the mid-1990s both IBM and Readers Digest sold off many of their best pieces.
Rozell feels strongly about this. "Our collection is not seen as an investment. It didn't start out that way. It is an asset. Obviously, when you have an asset like this, you have to take care of it, and it's very expensive to maintain. That's where UBS really shows its commitment, because not many corporate collections survive over the long term."
"The leadership of our organization truly believes in art, not only as a way to help our clients, but to inspire our own employees," Mathews affirmed. "Culturally, it's rich in our blood here at the old Paine Webber, now UBS, but I think the leadership over the years has really understood the importance of it. It could have just disappeared, but our engagement with the arts today is stronger than it's ever been."
In 2013, when he turned 90, the American artist Ellsworth Kelly was profiled on NPR's Morning Edition. When asked about his artistic goal, he replied, "I've always wanted to give people joy."
Take an elevator to the 14th floor of 1285 Sixth Avenue, and you are surrounded by icons of contemporary art. Some pieces shout with bright colors and bold brushstrokes. Others are more subdued, whispering their message in shades of gray.
There's an Ellsworth Kelly there too. As UBS employees and clients walk by and slow their steps to absorb its calm rainbow of colored panels, they can't help but smile and exhale — and feel changed for having done so.
Published here on Forbes.com
May 6, 2018