In her first year as Global Head of the UBS Art Collection, Mary Rozell accomplished an impressive list of goals. She oversaw the publication of a coffee table book on the 30,000-piece collection, curated an exhibition for the public, and brought her global team closer together. Now, about two years into the job, Rozell found some time to reflect on the path that brought her here.
“The line between my personal interests and work interests has always been blurry,” says Rozell. “I’ve spent a lot of my vacations looking at art. I believe anyone in the art world has to be looking all the time.”
While she emphasizes that art history should be the nexus of every art professional’s skill set, honing skills across many areas is crucial. And Rozell has a few. She started her career as an art attorney, and, in the mid-90s, worked as an art correspondent in Berlin. Her career has since spanned art law, curation, curriculum design, writing, and collecting. For all the aspects of the art world she’s seen, Rozell’s enthusiasm for her profession hasn’t wavered.
“That’s the best thing about working in the art world: it never gets old. There are always new ideas,” says Rozell. “I sometimes say to my team, you have to get out this afternoon and see this show. It’s really renewing and inspirational.”
What’s a typical day like for you?
My days start with many hours on the phone. We have offices in Zurich, London, and Hong Kong; only about 20% of my work happens in the Americas. I start with Hong Kong and by afternoon it’s the US! I also travel a lot. I’m abroad at least three months a year.
There are so many aspects of managing a collection: conservation, shipping, displays, and activating the collection. For example, right now we’re holding an exhibition of Lucian Freud at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, so we do press around that. We’re starting to plan next year’s program/schedule. I might have calls with partners in UBS art sponsorships, advisory, and education about joint projects. Art Basel Miami Beach is also on our radar. We have a VIP lounge and programming for our clients and guests. In general, I always have one foot in the day-to-day and one foot in the future, some of it concrete planning and some of it aspirational.
What drew you to art as a career path?
I grew up in a rural area in the Adirondacks where there wasn’t much art. I got into it when I had the opportunity to study in Egypt for a month as a sophomore in college. I was always interested in history—my father was a history teacher—so I came to art through the history side.
The next year I did my junior year abroad in Paris. I wanted to take all these art courses, but I didn’t feel like I could—it felt like too much of a luxury. My advisor said, you’re in Paris, you should study art! I was studying science, history, all these other things. Art seemed like too much of a girl thing, too soft. She really gave me permission to study in earnest.
You started out as an art lawyer. How did your career segue into collection?
When I knew I wanted to pursue art as a career path, I thought I wanted to be a museum director. At the time museum directors had PhDs in art. That was when Thomas Krens had come into the Guggenheim, and he had an MBA. I felt that as a woman, I wanted to have other tools besides an art degree. But business school did not appeal to me. So I decided to pursue art law. I thought I had invented a new profession!
I got an internship at the legal department of Sotheby’s. They told me I had to choose—“if you love art, you won’t want to be an attorney.” I still thought that law would be worthwhile. There were only couple law schools at the time that offered a program in art law. I went to one in California, where art laws are much more progressive, more like European laws. So I suffered through law school, but I knew that I didn’t want to be an attorney. I wanted to be back in the art world.
I started working for a collector and eventually created an academic course on collecting at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. There was so much knowledge and expertise out there that wasn’t put together in one place. Even though I was an art historian and had curated shows, I didn’t know about insurance, climate control, estate planning, all these other aspects. I realized people needed to be equipped with a 360-degree knowledge of art collecting. Out of that came my book, The Art Collector’s Handbook, in 2014.
By then I was directing the Art Business program at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York. The one thing I hadn’t done was corporate collecting—it was kind of a stone unturned. The PaineWebber collection, which was acquired by UBS in 2000, was one of the most prominent corporate collections back in the 80s when I was considering my career path, so it all came full circle. I do use my law almost every day, for copyrights, contracts, artist commissions, and more.
What are the parameters within which you buy work for the UBS collection?
We buy exclusively on the primary market, shortly after the work’s creation. We want to directly support artists and galleries. A lot of mid-level galleries are struggling right now, but we believe in the gallery system and the way they support artists and their career. That’s why I opened a Hong Kong office. We can buy all the Asian work we want in New York, but we wanted someone actually in the studio seeing the artist’s first show, their second show.
We have limits in terms of subject matter, since these are going up in offices—there can’t be too much violence, sex, and the like. And then there’s materiality to consider. We don’t collect ephemeral art or delicate installation pieces that someone’s going to knock over with their coffee cup.
You’ve made it a priority to add female artists to the collection, like Marilyn Minter. Who do you have your eye on now? Which female artists do you feel have been most neglected?
On the one hand there are so many. I’ve always been interested in older women artists who were overlooked for many years. Sheila Hicks was one of our most recent purchases. She’s around 80 years old. She lives in Paris and works in textiles as her medium. I’ve followed her work for many years. Now it’s in the Centre Pompidou, MoMA, the High Line in New York, the Venice Biennale. I love these artists who stick with their art, their craft, year after year, decade after decade.
I look at Carmen Herrera, who last year had a solo exhibition at the Whitney, but whose work was neglected for many years as part of the Ab-Ex movement. We’ve added Shahzia Sikander, a Pakistani-American artist with a well-established market. We also buy a lot of mid-career artists who might never be famous, but whom we want to support and have a relationship with.
We know that women are underrepresented in galleries and collections in general. That was also the case with UBS. The collection started in the 1960s. You buy what’s on the art market, and at the time that was very male and very Western. You were going to Soho, you weren’t going to collections all around the world. We’re very conscious of that. UBS is now this global company with offices all around the world, and we want our collection to represent that. Now we have work by artists from 75 countries and counting.
Ultimately we want to buy the best artworks we can. But every time we buy a woman artist there’s a little cheer in our office.