Mary Rozell came well equipped to command the worlds of art and finance when she joined UBS in 2015 as the global head of its art collection—she has a law degree and a master’s in art history. Under her stewardship, the bank revived its focus on artist commissions and, in 2019, opened a public gallery at its headquarters in Manhattan. Focusing almost exclusively on the primary market, the collection was formed as the bank merged with different institutions; at its heart are the works from Swiss Bank Corporation and PaineWebber as well as UBS. The collection is likely to expand further thanks to its acquisition of Credit Suisse earlier this year.
At Art Basel, Rozell is presenting the book Reimagining: New Perspectives, which chronicles the bank’s collecting over the past seven years. And despite the recent turmoil in the banking world, she hopes to find more works that “challenge us, providing insights into our world”. Here she tells us which artists she is banking on.
The Art Newspaper: How quickly do you decide to buy a work of art?
Mary Rozell: Collecting art has a lot to do with instinct and a willingness to take risks. That being said, our process is considered and takes time. We look, we learn, and we research over months and sometimes years. Then, when an opportunity arises, we can act very quickly if needed.
What was the first work you bought?
One of the first works we acquired when I joined was Doug Aitken’s Native Land (2014), an aluminium lightbox that presents a colourful mosaic of roadside signs, suggesting the intrusion of advertising within the natural landscape. This piece shares an affinity with the work of Ed Ruscha, who is well represented in the collection.
What was the last work you bought?
We recently acquired a textile creation by Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, which will be featured in our display in the UBS Lounge at Art Basel this year. I was intrigued by the artist’s practice when I saw her presentation in the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. She is a member of the Bergitka Roma, and her colourful work provides personal insights into her community. It also connects to several textile pieces we’ve acquired over the past few years.
What do you regret not buying when you had the chance?
There are some works that we think are incredible, but often we are unable to add them to the collection due to size or price. No matter how desirable a piece may be, it’s important to acknowledge when a work may not be affordable. In such instances, we may look for other more suitable works by the artist such as a work on paper or a print. We have long admired the work of El Anatsui, for example, but we do not have the space or budget to accommodate his monumental compositions. Recently, we acquired a beautiful edition comprised of hand-sculpted and formed aluminium sections, which fully captures his inimitable approach.
If you could have any work from any museum in the world, what would it be?
The greatest prize for me personally might be the painted limestone bust of Nefertiti (around 1345 BC) located in the Neues Museum in Berlin. It is a breathtaking work of art depicting one of the most famous women of the ancient world; the bust itself is now an icon of feminine beauty. But she unquestionably belongs in a museum.
Where do you like to eat and drink while you’re in Basel?
I must admit that much of the eating and drinking during the fair week is on the fly, but if the weather is nice and I get a moment, I like to be outside. There is a charming place called Gasthof zum Goldenen Sternen in the St. Alban Rheinweg. It is considered to be the oldest tavern in Basel. Basel is also known for its Buvetten, quaint open-air eateries that open in the summer along the river. I love the casual atmosphere and the diversity of people enjoying a coffee, drink or meal there.
What’s your least favourite thing about art fairs?
Fairs can be frenetic with a lot of wonderful distractions such as running into colleagues and old friends. There is never enough time. I’m always lamenting the things and events I’ve missed.
Where do you go in Basel to get away from it all?
I head to the river. In the mornings, I enjoy running or walking along the Rhine, and I always try to make a point of going for a swim before the week is over—rain or shine! It is both transporting and energising to allow yourself to float down the Rhine while enjoying the picturesque Old Town.
What tip would you give to someone visiting Basel for the first time?
Exploring the Art Basel Parcours programme is a great way to discover the city and its many fine museums and sites. We’re thrilled that our UBS Aeschenvorstadt branch in Basel’s historic city centre is once again included as a venue this year. I recommend a visit to discover the work of artist Melike Kara who has crafted a fantastic installation exploring her own identity, while combining Kurdish traditions and notions of home.
• Mary Rozell will be taking part in the panel A Body of Work: Artists at the Intersection of Reimagining Worldviews on Thursday 15 June at 11am in the Art Basel Auditorium