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A Corporate Commitment to the Arts: An Interview with Deborah Ehrlich

ByYunyi Lau
A Corporate Commitment to the Arts: An Interview with Deborah Ehrlich

Ms Deborah Ehrlich, Regional manager APAC, UBS Art Collection (Image courtesy of UBS)

With Hong Kong Art Week less than a week away, programmes and events are reaching a fever pitch. At the heart of this week-long art fest, is Art Basel Hong Kong, whose Lead Partner again this year is the leading global financial services company, UBS. Their relationship with Art Basel is one that ties in their commitment with the arts, and the cornerstone of that being the UBS Art Collection. The Art Collection is a historic one, amassed through the various firms that have come to be part of UBS, each bringing their own art collections into what the UBS Collection is today. As such, the richness of the collection is represented by the diversity of the artists that come from 73 countries - and this number is one that continually expands as the international art market expands.

At the head of the Asia Pacific region for the UBS Art Collection is Ms Deborah Ehrlich, Regional Manager APAC, who is based out of Hong Kong. Prior to her current position, Ms Ehrlich acted as VIP Relations Manager APAC for Art Basel, and tasked with overseeing and expanding Asia's VIP client activity and programming in Hong Kong, Basel and Miami, as well as developing and implementing strategies and processes for the fair's change from Art Hong Kong to Art Basel in 2013. In this interview she has kindly granted to The Artling, she speaks to us about her art career journey, what it means to manage a corporate art collection made up of over 30,000 objects, and what makes Hong Kong such an exciting art destination.


Could you start off by telling us a bit about your journey; how did you end up at your current position at UBS? Before this you were with arguably one of the biggest art fair franchises, Art Basel. What prompted the move from a commercial fair to managing a corporate collection?

Very simply, I was so inspired by an Art History class at university I knew I would pursue a career in the arts, and thereafter followed a path working in London, New York, Beijing and now Hong Kong. I joined Art Hong Kong in 2012 as it transformed into Art Basel and it was rewarding to have been able to witness and be part of a surging interest in the city's and region's art scene at an international scale. On the same note, every role I have had has been new to the organization or during an organization's time of change – I enjoy the creating and problem solving elements that such positions offer. Two years ago, Mary Rozell, Global Head of the UBS Art Collection thought it important to have representation in the region to expand the Collection and this presented the opportunity to work with the artworks, artists and the Collection's legacy in a role quite different from any of my previous jobs.


"Melting Memories - Rereading Landscape, Mooi Indies #8" (2014) by Jumaldi Alfi, 175 x 250 cm, Acrylic on Canvas, UBS Art Collection
© Jumaldi Alfi. Courtesy of ARNDT Fine Art and the Artist.

Tell us more about your role as the Regional Manager of UBS Art Collection; What are your main tasks and what does a typical day for you entail?

Being responsible for overseeing the Collection, we manage the displays of artwork from the Collection across the client areas in Asia – meaning we are responsible for the artwork hangs, and keeping best practices for the conservation of the Collection. We also look to engage our audiences both internally with peers, and externally with clients through tours of the Collection and related art events. Acquisitions – with my focus in Asian art – is paramount to the Collection, as well as being involved with loans to institutions, exhibitions, and art fair lounge displays which happen throughout the year. The beauty of the role is there is no typical day! On any given day we will touch on all of the above.


What are some of your biggest challenges with managing the Collection?

Perhaps one element of the Collection which is unique is that our works are hung in over 700 buildings globally which are for the most part, client-facing areas rather than exhibition halls. Ensuring works are maintained at a museum standard or risks are adequately assessed requires the support of a diverse range of colleagues throughout the region – Security teams to look after artwork, real estate teams for large-scale office artwork installations – we have many elements to consider and it's most rewarding when we collaborate to create these environments collectively.


"Iriamondi Cat, Dune (from the Pulau Pejantan series)" (2010) by Zhao Renhui, 84 x 121 cm, Archival Pigment Print,UBS Art Collection
© Courtesy by ShanghART and Artist

The global UBS Art Collection comprises of over 30,000 objects - an incredible number that could even rival some top national art institutions. Could you tell us a bit about the history of these items? How did UBS amass such a significant number of items and over what span of time?

In many ways, the UBS Art Collection is a snapshot at the history of the bank. With works from the 1960s to the present day, UBS is comprised of over 300 financial institutions which came together under what we now know as UBS, and many of them had their own corporate collections. Historically we can pinpoint the core of the Collection starting from Union Bank of Switzerland with its unique group of site-specific installations, Swiss Bank Corporation with significant photographs from the Dusseldorf School, and the Paine Webber Collection, which focused on Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art. Over time, new acquisitions have layered upon these legacies and created new ones.


"Rounded Cars" (2013) by Christine Ay Tjoe, 170 x 200cm, Oil on Canvas, UBS Art Collection
© Ay Tjoe Christine, Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts

Why is art important to UBS and how do you see its role within the art scene?

At the core of the conversation, art and creativity are inextricably interlinked. From the Collection standpoint, we have been a supporter of the arts from the inception of the Collection. This support has since dovetailed into partnerships with institutions and museums, and the sponsorship of various important platforms such as Art Basel.


"The Tenth Hour X" (2012) by Bharti Kher, 33 x 33 x 5 cm, Multi Coloured Bindis and Glue on Gloss Painted MDF, UBS Art Collection
© Bharti Kher

The UBS Art Collection continues to grow its Collection both through commissions and acquisitions. Could you tell us more about the acquisition or commission process? How does a work end up in the Collection and what are the considerations or underlying acquisition strategies?

The Collection focuses on artists from the late 20th Century and 21st century, looking at areas in which UBS has business reach, and acquiring works through the primary market – that is through galleries – in our endeavor to support artists' careers. We look at the scope of the artist's oeuvre, their exhibition history and what kind of dialogue they may have with other artworks in the Collection. We receive an acquisitions budget and submit proposals based on the acquisitions strategy set in our regions. Major works are also approved by an Art Board. Acquisitions in Asia can end up in branches in Europe and vice versa; ultimately the Collection is international, a reflection of UBS's scope of businesses and services, and we are fortunate to have an open dialogue with our Art Collection colleagues in New York, London, and Zurich which allows us to also keep up to date about art globally. This is a much-cherished aspect of the Collection.


One of the UBS statements says that “UBS believes that good contemporary art reflects and influences trends in society, and at times might even suggest the future.” How do you define “good art” and how do you think art can “suggest the future”?

Yes, I think that is from our Global Art homepage, and referring to the wider scope of UBS's activities in the arts, in which case one could think about UBS as a patron which we discussed earlier. When referring to "good art" I would also reference your earlier question about the Collection's acquisitions process, and thinking about those various elements. Artwork is almost always a reflection of the context in which it is created, which in itself can be used to understand the history at that time in the case of works made in the past, or in certain cases provides an observation of things to come.


"Remote Springs #14" (1987) by Wucius Wong, 66 x 67 cm, Oil on Canvas, UBS Art Collection
© Courtesy of the Artist

What aspects of the local Hong Kong art scene most excites you? Who are some emerging artists in Hong Kong and the region that you have your eye on?

Hong Kong's art scene continues to evolve daily, but I am most looking forward to seeing our institutional scene blossom with the opening of M+ Museum and Taikwun, to name a few. I hope this will bring renewed awareness and support to existing not-for-profit spaces and organizations like Parasite, Asia Art Archive, Videotage, and more, who contribute to promoting local and regional artists and provide a non-commercial platform for artistic discourse. I am looking for artists who can have a dialogue with existing works in the Collection and can also engage our audiences.


"Yejiang / The Nightman Cometh 2" (2011) by Yang Fudong, 120 x 180 cm, Black and White Inkjet Print, UBS Art Collection
© Courtesy by ShanghART and Artist

As the works are part of a private collection, many of the works are not usually on view to the public. How does UBS programme their art-related events to create engagement with the wider public?

Yes, this is an important element for the UBS Art Collection. As I mentioned we do have exhibitions of our artworks – this year for example we will open an exhibition of 54 of our Ed Ruscha works – at the Louisana Museum in Denmark, which will be on view from May 17 to August 19, 2018. Exhibitions can take two years of planning and are accompanied by a catalogue. Last year we had an exhibition of works from the Collection by Lucian Freud at the Martin Gropius-Bau in Berlin. We also actively loan works out to museums globally. We published 'To Art Its Freedom' last year, a book which included two essays and a selection of works from the Collection, and is available to the public.


"The Days We Were Happy" (1972) by Nobuyoshi Araki, 10 x 14.5 cm each, 7 Vintage Baryt Paper Prints, UBS Art Collection
© courtesy gallery bob van orsouw - zurich switzerland

Finally, where do you see the Collection in 10 years time? What particular aspect or genre of the Collection would you like to build upon more?

Just as UBS continues to evolve, so does the UBS Art Collection. We are looking to expand the representation of Asian artists in the Collection, and create more opportunities for loans and exhibitions in this region. Through these actions, we will be able to increasingly engage in a meaningful dialogue with stakeholders and peers in the art community.



For more Hong Kong Art Week 2018 coverage, head here.

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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