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Edmund Koh, Asia-Pacific president of UBS Group AG, discusses the growth of its art collections over the years

Khairani Afifi Noordin
Khairani Afifi Noordin  • 9 min read
Edmund Koh, Asia-Pacific president of UBS Group AG, discusses the growth of its art collections over the years
Since the 1960s, UBS has fostered a strong connection with contemporary art
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Inspirational art, sparking conversations and offering fresh perspectives. The Asia-Pacific president of UBS Group AG, Edmund Koh, hopes to achieve that with the UBS Art Collection, which comprises over 30,000 pieces, including paintings, works on paper, photographs, sculptures, videos and installations featuring artists from 70 countries. The vast assemblage also showcases the firm’s commitment to artistic innovation and its global role as a patron of the contemporary art community. 

“We have a long history of supporting cultural endeavours across the world and continue to use contemporary art to bring together ideas, inspiration and opinion to enrich lives,” says the banking veteran, who is also a member of the firm’s group executive board. 

Koh has over three decades of experience in various senior roles in the financial services industry. He joined the Swiss financial group in February 2012 before being appointed to his current role in January 2019, the first Singaporean to assume the position. 

Edmund Koh at ART SG 2023, in front of Dawn Ng’s Stars Fading but I Linger on (2023)

Exploring UBS’s six-decade art collection journey, Koh emphasises the bank’s approach, consistently expanding globally through international acquisitions, commissions and support for communities in regions where UBS operates.

See also: Journeys across time

In recent acquisitions, themes of climate change and positivity are explored. Notably, the collection includes Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury’s First Spaceship on Venus (2022), a lipstick-coloured rocket challenging gender dynamics in space travel.

UBS released Reimagining: New Perspectives last year to commemorate the evolution of the collection’s new direction. The book, published by Phaidon, brought together over 120 works acquired within the past seven years, exploring key themes such as equality, technology and the environment, Koh adds.

See also: Hong Kong’s art scene is undergoing a renaissance sparked by a vibrant full-year programme at the M+ museum

A panel with an artwork by Jane Lee, It #1 (2019) from the UBS Art Collection

Most of the UBS Art Collection is exhibited in UBS offices worldwide, acting as a source of inspiration for employees and a platform for dialogue with clients and the public. At UBS’s Singapore office at 9 Penang Road, artworks featured include those by Southeast Asian artists, such as Christine Ay Tjoe, Jane Lee, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Danh Vo and Robert Zhao Renhui. There are also works commissioned for the Singapore office, such as those by local artist Hilmi Johandi.

Says Koh: “The mission of the UBS Art Collection is to collect the art of our time and spark conversations about today’s pressing issues. This is driven by our belief that artists are the spokespeople of our time and that art can tangibly contribute to building a better world.”

“It’s notable how we have strengthened our commitment to artists, deepening relationships and creating learning opportunities for people to connect with art through commissioning artists to create site-specific works.”

Fostering artistic communities

In its ongoing pursuit of championing contemporary art, UBS actively backs various art fairs worldwide. In Asia, this includes Art Basel Hong Kong, Taipei Dangdai and West Bund Art & Design in Shanghai.

In 2023, UBS hosted the inaugural ART SG, Southeast Asia’s largest art fair, featuring 160 leading galleries. The event, aimed at uniting international galleries and collectors, attracted over 43,000 visitors in January. ART SG, responding to the surging global interest in the Asian art scene, emerged as a vibrant hub in Singapore, catering to collectors and art enthusiasts in the region, aligning with the country’s growing prominence in the cultural landscape.

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“For the past decade, we have witnessed the growth and potential of Singapore’s collectors and the quality of local connoisseurship. Through our collaboration with ART SG, we aim to nurture and support Singapore’s creative scene and provide our clients and guests exclusive access to the most important galleries and dynamic artists and artworks,” he adds.

A visitor admiring an artwork at ART SG 2023

ART SG’s second edition, scheduled for Jan 19 to 21 this year, builds on the success of its inaugural event. The fair will showcase international galleries and emerging art spaces, offering diverse sectors — galleries, focus and futures. The programme includes daily talks, large-scale installations, film and moving images.

Koh spotlighted site-specific installations by Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho, known for blending local traditions and urban environments in his award-winning works. Nugroho, hailing from Yogyakarta, has exhibited globally, from Seoul and Paris to Berlin and Beijing.

Nugroho’s interactive project, We Are Here Now at the UBS Art Studio, emphasises environmental protection, raising awareness about global waste issues and urging action.

“The two mask-shaped sculptures featured are crafted mainly with recycled materials collected from Nugroho’s hometown of Yogyakarta. The project requires visitors’ participation to be complete. Visitors are invited to step into the two sculptures to have their Polaroid pictures taken and subsequently attached to a third ‘blank’ sculpture, reflecting the artist’s belief that everyone has a role to play in building a sustainable future together,” adds Koh.

In the UBS Lounge, Nugroho’s Hands with Sunrise presentation combines community and environmental awareness themes with embroidered paintings, featuring the commissioned installation Guarding Sunrise in Mind (2023) and sculptures made from upcycled plastic waste crafted with communities in Yogyakarta.

Market appeal

UBS is optimistic about the influence of its partnerships with global art fairs. The firm aims to enhance art appreciation among current and potential clients through active participation.

In UBS’s latest global study of high-net-worth (HNW) collectors, Koh points out that 77% of those surveyed remained optimistic about the art market’s performance over the next six months. Most collectors (54%) planned to buy art over the next year. 

The survey also found clear indicators that the HNW collectors were spending more than before the pandemic. Although their share of spending at prices under US$50,000 ($66,490) more than halved between 2019 and 2022, the proportion in the over US$1 million range increased substantially from 18% to 31%. Meanwhile, the share of spending over US$10 million had doubled to 12%.

Some of the most active buying plans were reported by collectors from China — with 68% intending to purchase works — along with large majorities in Japan, Brazil and Italy. Back home, 91% of Singapore art collectors surveyed planned to continue attending art-related exhibitions in 2024.

“Collecting art has been a passion among successful individuals and families across the globe for centuries. At UBS, we are equally passionate about art and collecting as our clients. We believe that great collections mirror the collectors’ passions, interests and experiences. 

“That is why we love to speak to our clients about their collections and we also offer platforms like ART SG for them to meet like-minded individuals and receive advice through our art advisory team to help them build their legacies through their art collections,” Koh says. 

Koh, a contemporary art enthusiast, values its ability to inspire and envision a better future. His appreciation spans artists like Damien Hirst, Natee Utarit, Tjoe, Jane Lee and Anish Kapoor. “During ART SG 2023, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dawn Ng from Singapore about her work Forever Now (2023), which leads visitors through a tunnel with a specially composed soundscape of water drops falling. At the end of the tunnel, visitors encountered a mirror-reflected space with a meditative video of a block of melting frozen pigment,” he adds. 

A panel with an artwork by Dawn Ng, Nothing is Wrong She Turns Me On (2022)

“I am pleased that [Ng’s] works are also on display in our office at 9 Penang Road for our clients and colleagues to enjoy and we often discuss how the artworks we collect reflect different facets of ourselves or our lives.”  

The art market in the post-pandemic palette

The pandemic adversely affected the art market, causing widespread disruptions with the postponement or cancellation of various art events, auctions and exhibitions, intensifying uncertainty in the industry. 

Despite enduring challenges, the art market exhibited resilience during its post-pandemic recovery. Collectors have demonstrated commitment by actively participating in live events, exhibitions, auctions and fairs and are returning to fuller schedules.

This cautious growth offers optimism: According to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report 2023, global art sales increased by 3% y-o-y to an estimated US$67.8 billion in 2022, lifting them above their pre-pandemic level in 2019. 

Public auctions generated US$5.5 billion within the different sales categories in 2022. Although the value of public auction sales in the US was still the highest, those in Asia accounted for almost 20% and were stable at US$1.1 billion, including Singapore and Hong Kong. Singapore is also a notable exception to the Asia-wide decline in the sales of post-war and contemporary art, with double-digit expansion in 2022.

The boost was driven by Sotheby’s live auction, which returned to Singapore in August 2022 after a hiatus of 15 years. The auction house describes the event, which raked in $24.5 million in sales, as a nod to the city-state as an art capital in the region.

Internationally, notable trends in the art market involve a surge in the value of young artists, with “ultra-contemporary” figures like Matthew Wong, Avery Singer and Christina Quarles setting new auction records. The record prices and non-fungible token sales contributed to a 40% increase in contemporary art share in 2021.

Even with a 26% decline in contemporary art in 2022, the year witnessed record prices and auction debuts for young artists like Anna Weyant and Lucy Bull, born in the early 1990s, whose works fetched over US$1 million despite their debut appearance at auction.

The art market has experienced significant expansion in e-commerce, particularly during the pandemic. After a slow but positive growth trajectory in most years up to 2019, online sales peaked at US$12.4 billion in 2020, doubling in size y-o-y as the pandemic restricted offline channels and events. 

Growth continued in 2021, with sales reaching US$13.3 billion, an increase of 7%. As exhibitions, auction sales and fairs returned in 2022, dealers and auction houses reported a reduction in their aggregate share of pure e-commerce. Online-only sales fell to US$11 billion, a 17% decline y-o-y from the 2021 peak.

Future restrictions on travel also serve as a reminder of the social nature of art market sales. Collectors and businesses surveyed by Art Basel and UBS stress the importance of offline contact for building lasting relationships and trust while welcoming the return to travel and events. -- Bloomberg

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