The walls and corridors of Julius Baer’s offices around the world are home to a very comprehensive collection of contemporary Swiss art that today numbers over 5,000 pieces. The curator, Barbara Staubli, explains the origins of the collection and the thinking behind the unusual decision to exhibit art in the workplace.
Contemporary art can be challenging. As an evolving commentary on our world it can be difficult to interpret, unfamiliar or even unsettling. The artist may choose to ignore established conventions in the hope of providing insights that may not be readily apparent to non-aficionados. These are not concepts one normally associates with the workplace, unless one works at Julius Baer.
Walking through the various locations where Julius Baer operates, one is introduced to a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Swiss art. In the firm belief that art in the workplace offers a good starting point for an exchange of views, Hans J. Baer (1927- 2011) established the Julius Baer Art Committee in 1981. Its objective, then and now, is to buy and display contemporary Swiss art with the purpose of supporting artists who, at the time of a first purchase, are not yet firmly established, but clearly have a great deal of potential.
Offering new perspectives
For Hans J. Baer, art was not something to be shut away but something to be experienced daily, allowing it to become integral to the culture and environment of the company. The Art Collection is for all employees, and there isn’t a hierarchy on who gets what artwork in their office. The paintings, sculptures and photographs displayed are intended to offer new perspectives and so to challenge, provoke and inspire not only staff, but also visiting clients. “The goal is to expose employees to innovative and future-oriented art and make it a vital part of the environment in which they work,” Staubli says. “Art should encourage discussions among people and today, as in the past, the pieces in the collection often stir an emotional response and even heated debates. I sometimes have encounters where people actually call me and would like to know why a certain piece of art was purchased. I see this as a good opportunity to meet someone and to exchange different views. This open-minded debate is a critical part of our corporate culture.”
A living gallery
Today, paintings, photographs, sculptures, videos, graphics and drawings make up the collection. The meeting rooms, offices, canteens, foyers and corridors of Julius Baer, where the artworks are displayed, are reminiscent of a museum, although without the prevailing quiet. The bustle of employees at work is part of the ambiance of this living gallery, offering surprise around every corner. The surprise is not just the situation of the art but the variety of genres on display. At Julius Baer’s head office, the fluorescent red acrylic work of Renée Levi hangs in a corridor. The vibrant mural paintings of Samuel Buri dominate the entrance to its Altstetten Operations Centre, while in its foyer hang the ornate wrought iron lamps of the Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely, best known for his sculptural machines or kinetic art.
A focus on Swissness
The Julius Baer Art Committee is responsible for buying works for the collection. Its ongoing objective is to support Swiss artists who are ‘young’ in the sense that they are on their way to becoming established, but are still relatively unknown at the time of the first purchase. “This is an important and critical aspect of our decision process,” Staubli says. “Our strategy is to keep an eye on young artists who have gained some interest and who time and again demonstrate their creativity. From that point, we follow that artist and will purchase more works as they develop in their career to round off their oeuvre.” Art in the collection is not purchased for the sake of investment, but rather with a philanthropic approach in order to support the development of the artist’s oeuvre. “By starting to collect an artist’s work at an early stage, you give them reassurance when they need it most,” says Staubli. “We do not support the artist financially by paying for projects, publications or exhibitions, but by purchasing an artwork, and so the artist gets a piece of the cake. This is one way. We also form a sort of relationship with artists and often buy more of their work over time.” One such example is the artist duo Andres Lutz and Anders Guggisberg. The Art Committee purchased the first piece from them 13 years ago and over the years has acquired 10 more works from them. “We have a good bundle of works, which enables us to show their development and how they continually reinvent themselves,” Staubli explains.
An independent committee
Sitting on the Art Committee are three Julius Baer relationship managers, the head of strategic research and, notably, no one from senior management. This helps the committee maintain its independence and make purchases that are meaningful to the overall collection. It is the committee that decides what to buy, following much deliberation and considering the advice from its external expert Giovanni Carmine, from Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, who is an important and well-connected curator of contemporary art. Of course, Julius Baer has set up certain guidelines that the committee follows. If the artwork is over a certain value then the Executive Board is brought into the decision-making process. Each member of the committee has their own area of speciality which they bring in to the selection process. This broad base of knowledge ensures the committee looks at a particular work from various points of view. “The constellation of employees on the Committee really works because all of us have different mindsets, but share a love of art,” explains Staubli.
The collection doubles in size
Not all of the 5,000 pieces that today make up the collection were acquired through the Art Committee. In September 2005, Julius Baer announced the purchase of the private banks – Ehinger & Armand von Ernst AG, Ferrier Lullin & Cie SA, and BDL Banco di Lugano. With the purchase came a large art collection including paintings by ‘Rot-Blau’, a Basle-based association of artists and a relative of the Expressionist movement. The acquisition almost doubled the Art Collection overnight. Then again, in 2010, Julius Baer Group acquired the Swiss banking arm of the Dutch financial group ING. With that purchase came the photographs of Balthasar Burkhard, Monique Jacot and Jean-Pascal Imsand, along with important works by Jean Tinguely and Mario Merz – one of the artists who, in the 1960s, made a lasting impression on the Swiss art scene. These impressive additions to the collection solidified its unique character and its reputation for providing an excellent overview of Swiss contemporary art over the past 30 years.
A collection spread around the world
As the Julius Baer collection has grown and become even more international, Barbara Staubli and Daniel Schmid, from Julius Baer’s art department, face the challenge of having an art collection spread around the world. As it is harder to place whole installations or site-specific art, the majority of the collection is comprised of drawings, paintings, sculptures and photographs, although the committee does branch out. They are open to new media, such as video art. In 1995, the committee purchased its first audio and video installation. ‘Edna’, by Pipilotti Rist, is part of a series of videos ‘Yoghurt on Skin-Velvet on TV’, that is today considered one of the highlights of the collection. The artworks are on display in the offices of Julius Baer’s’s premises worldwide.
In the early 1990s, the project started by showcasing Swiss art in the New York office. During that time, Julius Baer opened its Frankfurt office, where works were placed in each room. The practice has spread from there. When Julius Baer opened an office in Dubai, the choice of a Swiss winter motif by Jules Spinatsch proved to be a way for relationship managers to talk to Middle Eastern clients about the characteristics of ‘Swissness’. “To talk about Swiss art is quite a good link to our own heritage, and a great opener. Swissness is a very unique trademark of the company,” says Staubli. Interested clients are offered guided tours of the collection at the Julius Baer head office. According to Staubli, the collection gives staff the opportunity to connect with clients in a unique way. “Our clients are very interested in art. I believe that after guiding a client through the collection that they will connect very differently with the company thereafter.”
Love at first sight
“I saw there was a significant difference in terms of the tradition of the Julius Baer collection compared to other corporate collections,” she explains. “While many other corporate collections are started purely to enhance brand image, this one was built on a passion for the arts, and I wanted to be part of that.” At the time, Staubli, who is an art historian, had been working for various galleries, including the world-renowned Hauser & Wirth gallery. “As an art historian, you can either work at a gallery, where you are very close to the artist and support them through their creative process, you can work at a museum, which has a more academic approach, or you can work at a corporate collection,” Staubli explains. “I was looking at corporate collections because I enjoy the corporate groove. My father was an entrepreneur and I like the efficiency of business. Being the curator of a corporate collection gives you the best of both worlds.” According to Staubli, corporations are playing an increasingly important role in the development of contemporary art worldwide. Over the past 50 years, it has been corporations to a greater extent that provide the financial input to support the art scene, as museums and private collectors are no longer in a position to support the art world in the way they did in the past. “The ongoing dedication of our management to the collection is a clear reflection of our commitment to art and society.”