"I just knew that what was going on in Berlin after the fall of the Wall was not going to happen again during my lifetime. It was like Paris in the 20s. It was a wild, experimental, riveting time, and I wanted to be there to witness it."
Mary Rozell is the Global Head of the UBS Art Collection based in New York City. Previously, she developed the Art Business Master’s program at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York, and served as its Director. With degrees in art law and art history, she has also written extensively on the art market, including as the former Germany Correspondent for the Art Newspaper. In 2014, she wrote the book The Art Collector's Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Acquiring and Owning Art, and in 2020, she released a second edition.
In this interview, Mary Rozell shares how her love of German art led her to Berlin right after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, what initially attracted her to working in private collections, and how the art world has evolved over the last decade. She also lays out the various responsibilities of working as the Global Head of the UBS Art Collection and what makes a collection good.
TGL: How was your childhood?
MR: My childhood was simple, classic middle-class American. I grew up in a small town in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York where there wasn't a lot of art. I thought I wanted to be a scientist or an anthropologist. I was influenced by my father who was a high school history teacher and sometimes prepared Renaissance art slides for a lecture. When I got to college, I was still thinking about science, because I was good at it and schools wanted women in science so I was steered into those classes. Then, I took my first trip abroad to Egypt, where I had the opportunity to study art for a month. After that, there was no turning back. I went to Paris for a year and signed up at the Sciences Po. And then an advisor said to me, "Mary you're in Paris, it's okay to study art."
TGL: Were you exposed to the art world as a child?
MR: My mom made a point to drive us to the city once a year and we had a good small art museum nearby as well as art reproductions on the walls at home, I otherwise had little exposure. I loved art, but had no entree into the art world or real awareness of it. When I interned at Sotheby’s during my senior year of college, I slept at my grandmother's outside the city and made the long commute in. Back then, you didn’t make enough money starting out at Sotheby's to pay rent in the city; somebody had to subsidize you. So you were not going to be a kid coming from where I came from and just waltz into Sotheby's and get a job. It seemed to be a profession for other people, a privileged person's world - except for perhaps some of the legendary dealers that came from different paths with interesting biographies. Thankfully, the art world has definitely expanded since then. There are all these art business startups, online enterprises, and more roles for people of all backgrounds. I don't know if I would feel the same intimidation and outsider feeling towards it if I were growing up now.
TGL: What did you do after graduating?
MR: I was a French teacher. Then I decided I had to go to law school. I wanted to be a museum director, and I did not think that, as a woman, I would ultimately get that position with “just” a PhD in art. The museum landscape in the US was changing, some traditionally-trained museum directors were failing because they didn't have business skills and strategic thinking. At my Sotheby’s internship within the legal department they said, "You can't combine art and law, because you're always going to be a lawyer, and it's not really about art." But I went to law school anyway out in California, because it was one of two schools at the time that had an art law program. I suffered through law school and took the bar exam, always knowing that I wasn't going to be a lawyer. I knew that all along, but I didn't tell anyone because it is hard for people around you when you're going through intense school with exams and it's a financial strain. I had a lot of student loans. The whole idea that I would go to graduate school a second time would’ve been a bit much for people close to me, so it remained my secret plan.
TGL: How did you become interested in German Art?
MR: I worked in a boutique art law firm in Washington, DC for a few years, and I was involved in some restitution cases related to modern German art. There was also this great Degenerate art exhibition curated by Stephanie Barron, from the Los Angeles County Museum, which came to Washington’s National Gallery. Then, I went to Berlin right after the Wall came down, and that was it. It all became about German art, Berlin. I got my Masters at The Courtauld in London, in German Expressionism, and I went to live in Berlin for real in the 90s.
TGL: Why did you decide to move to Germany?
MR: I just knew that what was going on in Berlin after the fall of the Wall was not going to happen again during my lifetime. It was like Paris in the 20s. It was a wild, experimental, riveting time, and I wanted to be there to witness it.
TGL: What was the reality of living in Berlin in the ’90s?
MR: My friends thought I was crazy, my family thought I was crazy. Even the German people, my friends who are now the big art dealers there were like, “why are you here?” People from home didn't want to visit, Berlin held little general appeal at the time. It was not beautiful like London, Rome or Paris. Most of the few Americans there had been in the military and had stayed on once the Allies withdrew from Berlin in ’94. It was an interesting time, but also a lonely time without email or other means to stay in touch. We only had the phone and that was expensive. I still have a little apartment in Berlin, and I still feel deeply connected to that city. I continue to have a whole other life there, though I don't get there as much as I would like.
TGL: Where did you work in Berlin?
MR: In the beginning, I was teaching English, trying to survive. I wrote a lot of catalog texts for artists and did contracts for galleries. I also worked for Villa Grisebach, the auction house, for about a year. Through that, I got in touch with The Art Newspaper and became the Germany correspondent. I invented the position. I wouldn't have gotten that job if I were in New York, but I wrote to them asking to get the paper distributed in Berlin. I was dependent on those news sources since we didn't have the internet. Later, I had a curator role in Weimar at an interesting non-profit gallery (Kunstverein) that had been illegal during the GDR period. I became head of a European studio program for artists that was run through that gallery, and paid for by the state as Weimar was to become the Cultural Capital of Europe in 1999. I ran the program through that important year when a lot was happening. The American embassy also hired me to travel around different areas in Germany, mostly in the East to give lectures on American art.
TGL: What did you do when you came back to America in 2000?
MR: I didn't want to come back, but I chose to because of a family issue here. I had to start all over once again, which was not what I felt like doing. I spent a year working at the Swiss Institute in downtown Manhattan as the managing director. From there, I went to a private collection, and that is the lane I've mostly stayed in since. Private collections are about the art front and center, and they tie in everything else. You have to know so much to manage a collection effectively. After that, I ran the Art Business master's program at Sotheby's Institute of Art for several years.
TGL: What attracted you to working with private collections?
MR: I was called up by a collector in 2001 who had heard about me, and she wanted me to go work for her. I saw the collection, and it blew me away. I also really like the market; it's nice to be on the buying side sometimes. I've worked for nonprofits raising funds, so it can be rewarding to be on the money side, to be with a collector who has some resources and vision and can realize projects relatively quickly. Working for this collector exposed me to so much. I thought I knew a lot, but I didn't have any knowledge about the details of climate control, conservation, or collection care. I had to call in all different specialists and I learned a great deal from them. I did know quite a bit about estate planning from my legal work, which came in handy.
TGL: How did you influence the Art Business master’s program at Sotheby’s?
MR: I built the program. I designed it to give people what I didn't have as a student and what I felt was needed for a successful art career. Instead of three years of law school, you get one year of focused art law within your M.A. and you get the essential art market knowledge. We also tried to open up the program and get a more diverse student body, which was challenging because it's still a costly education. We were able to offer some scholarships.
I created a course on art collecting, and in that context, I wrote a book, The Art Collector's Handbook (Lund Humphries, 2014/2020), because that kind of book did not exist.
TGL: Can you talk more about your book, The Art Collector's Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Acquiring and Owning Art?
MR: The book was originally published in 2014, with a different subtitle. The new edition will be coming out shortly. So much has changed legally and structurally in the art world in just five years. It's astonishing. And this was before the current Covid-19 crisis disrupted and accelerated so much.
The art market is secretive. I pulled together information gathered from my own experience as well as that of countless experts and collectors with whom I had worked. At Sotheby's, we invited different specialists to speak on a regular basis. One of those experts, for example, was the head of AXA Art Insurance, the largest art insurer in the world. She came to speak with the students every year. She told us so many great stories, interesting tidbits about that industry, and different angles to consider. Also, I would take my students to collectors’ homes in various countries. We learned so much. I thought that all of this valuable information should be documented together somewhere.
TGL: Do you think the art world has become more mainstream?
MR: Absolutely. The art world is so much bigger. It's vast. And that's the thing, when the UBS Art Collection was originally put together, Don Marron, who was CEO of PaineWebber and a legendary collector, mostly went to the galleries in SoHo. Occasionally, he would go to Basel but that was it. Now, where do you begin with the thousands of galleries around the world when you're trying to put together a meaningful collection? The exponential expansion of art fairs globally and the introduction of online platforms have also changed collecting. It’s notable that the biggest growth sector of collectors are now the millennials. They’re much more inclined to acquire work online, and they expect more transparency with their transactions. More women are also collecting.
TGL: What led you to the position of Global head of UBS Art Collection in 2015?
MR: Back in college when I was deciding what to do, I followed the PaineWebber Collection. Don Marron was a pioneer and leader in corporate collecting during its heyday in the 1980s. UBS acquired PaineWebber and its collection in 2000, so when I was asked to run it, I really couldn't say no. I was always curious about corporate collecting and how it might be different from other kinds of collecting. Corporate collections had also always been fairly secretive. I was aware that, as an art professional, it can be hard to adapt to a corporate banking environment, but I felt that with my law background and business experience, I was up for it. I also speak German and thought this might be helpful for work in a Swiss bank. I was thrilled and am still thrilled to work with this extraordinary collection.
TGL: When did this collection start?
MR: There are pieces dating from the 60s, but the collecting started in earnest in the 70s. The UBS Art Collection is actually made up of several different collections put together predominately in Europe and the US over the decades. The collection has become part of the culture and the heritage of the company.
TGL: What are the parameters for acquiring an artwork at UBS?
MR: There are restrictions for a corporate collection because it’s not a museum or a private home. We consider the material integrity of a piece, we’d like to know it's going to last a good 50 years. It can't be a delicate installation. To a certain extent, we’re also limited with the subject matter. We can't have too much overt violence, sex or politics that might cause offense. It’s a workplace. That being said, art should be provocative. We look for works that have a certain visual appeal, but also layers of meaning that speak to the most compelling issues of our time. We are sometimes limited by size, too, because most of the works hang in meeting rooms. Unlike a museum, we have a relatively small percentage of works in storage. It's an active, working collection.
TGL: Is there a committee for acquiring new work?
MR: There is an art board that makes decisions for artworks above a certain price tag such as large-scale commissions, but that's the exception. Otherwise, it is my team and I making the acquisitions with an annual budget. The process is organic, we're exchanging information on a daily basis. We're looking and then an opportunity arises and a decision has to be made. It is a big responsibility. Sometimes it's a tough call. We don't know what other opportunities are going to be coming down the road. Much of what we do at galleries and at the fairs is educate ourselves.
TGL: Which acquisition from the last year are you the most proud of?
MR: I love the Fred Eversley down in the lobby. I’m really proud of it because it was difficult for us to obtain, we just had a few hours to get everything aligned. I think it's incredibly beautiful, and he's such a special individual. I am also excited about our new acquisitions by Derrick Adams, Shinique Smith, Sam Gilliam…it’s hard to say, there are a lot! We have been focusing on women and artists of color, because this collection - like the majority of these Western collections put together during a certain era - was very white and very male. The market looks different now and so should the collection.
TGL: What is your vision of a good collection?
MR: I don't know how to define that. Certainly, I would say focus, but so much of collecting is about having an eye. One rule I try to stick with is not to settle for my second choice ever. You have to have a lot of discipline to wait. It’s a game, it's not easy, and you have to control yourself. I have a talented global team, we're always trading ideas and sharing what we've seen. There are certain things that resonate and gel. If half the team doesn't care for a particular artist’s work, it rarely happens. Usually, we know what fits, what works, what’s missing, and what we need to add in order to strengthen the existing collection.
TGL: How do you promote the UBS collection?
MR: We published a book, To Art Its Freedom (Hatje Cantz, 2016), during my first year. With 30,000 artworks in the collection, though, how does one choose just 225 for a publication? Our goal was to provide a snapshot of what we had been collecting over the years, in terms of demographics and media. We also produced two monographic museum exhibitions and accompanying catalogues based on our works by Ed Ruscha and Lucian Freud at The Louisiana in Denmark and the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, respectively. Most recently, we opened our public UBS Art Gallery in the lobby of our New York flagship last year.
The joy of having a collection is sharing it. The artwork is primarily for the enjoyment of our employees and clients, but we also want to open it up to the public and scholars whenever possible. We have an active museum loan program, so at any given time we'll have a number of artworks from the collection out on loan. We are focused on public outreach and direct engagement with artists. We don't just want to buy artwork, we want to have relationships and initiate projects with the artists we admire. We've done a number of commissions over the last few years, which is both fun and daunting because you never know for sure how it's going to turn out.
TGL: How do you reach out to artists and find work to acquire?
MR: Part of our mission is to support galleries, so we visit galleries and fairs first and foremost. We almost always buy works on the primary market in order to support the artist and the gallery system. This ties in nicely with UBS’s long standing sponsorship commitment to Art Basel. There's nothing better than a studio visit, but we generally do not do them until after we have acquired a work or contracted with an artist for a specific project
TGL: Do you give tours of the collection?
MR: We offer tours at our global flagships – New York, Zurich, London and Hong Kong – over 100 tours per year. I must admit I push my team on this, because I believe that sharing our collection is paramount. Since the artworks hang mostly in meeting rooms, though, most of the visits have to take place in the evening once the office has closed. It tends to be long hours for my team, you have to be really dedicated. We also always have an exhibition in our New York lobby for the public to access during business hours.
TGL: What are the challenges of running this collection?
MR: A big challenge is that we are operating primarily in a non-art environment within a large, complex organization. Recently, we went to install major works in a new building in Switzerland, and the wall colors were not right for the art. It’s not something the designer of the building is thinking about. Also, some people assume we hold art for its investment value, but we don't collect for investment purposes - though it is true that some works have become very valuable over time.
TGL: What does having an art collection bring to a company?
MR: First of all, for employees, it's a wonderful escape. Art inspires. It sounds like a cliché, but it does inspire creativity when you have this around you. When you come into a conference room for a meeting and you see works of this caliber hanging on the wall, it adds to the conversation. The artworks challenge people, and invite an interesting dialogue. Most importantly, the art builds relationships with clients. Many of our clients are collectors, they're interested in art. It’s great to talk about something other than finances, to talk about life and the things that we’re passionate about, it creates a different connection. The relationship is not just about money, it's about what you care about and what your values are.
TGL: How has Covid 19 affected you personally and in your work?
MR: Covid-19 - while tragic and stressful, especially here in NYC - has also offered a much-needed chance to re-set and think about a number of issues. Since my team works globally and is well set up for remote communication, our day-to-day did not skip a beat. We have shifted our priorities, however, focusing less on events which mostly have been cancelled and more on collection care, security, research, and other projects that had been on the back burner. We greatly miss seeing our artworks, having the hands-on experience and interactions. We have continued to acquire artworks at the same pace during this time. It’s been important to us to support galleries and artists through the crisis.
TGL: You mentioned working on diversifying the collection, could you explain your perspective on diversity and inclusion inside a contemporary art collection?
MR: At the UBS Art Collection, we are committed to reflecting the world that we live in and the issues of our time, so diversity and inclusion are very much part of our approach.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
MR: I would say Gerhard Richter. Not only did I focus my studies on German art, but Richter is just one of those towering figures – a fascinating, once-in-a-generation talent.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
MR: Trust yourself and trust what's speaking to you.