Podcast: Investment Giant UBS Donates 166 Important Photographs to the National Gallery of Art

Podcast: Investment Giant UBS Donates 166 Important Photographs to the National Gallery of Art

In the latest episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast, we discuss a big new donation of historic photographs to the National Gallery of Art

Full episode transcript

In this episode, we’ll talk about the large recent donation of Photographs to the National Gallery of Art by UBS

Intro music

Hey everybody Keith Dotson here, welcoming you back to another episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast. In this episode, we’ll discuss UBS recent donation of 166 important American photographs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Along the way we’ll answer a few questions:
Who is UBS?
Why the National Gallery of Art?
Which photographs were donated?
Who was John Szarkovski?

A press release from UBS states that the international investment firm has donated — quote —
“166 photographs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the firm’s largest donation by number of works at one time. Dating from the 19th and 20th century, this group of photographs by 96 artists illustrates a multifaceted story of land use covering a range of themes including the impact of industry, the transformation of the environment, and the celebration of the rich and diverse American landscape.” — End quote.

UBS has said that they donated the works to the National Gallery of Art because it’s distinctly American work — themed around the land, by American photographers. UBS said that the collection was selected to represent the majestic views of western mountains, waterfalls, and deserts which celebrated the American West — symbolic of the country’s power and promise and destiny. But UBS also included works that they claim gives the counter-narrative to that viewpoint — artists who envision the landscape as sanctuary, or battleground, or as a conquest.

Works by other artists portray the impact of human activity on the landscape, and the interaction between white settlers and indigenous people. Included in collection are iconic 20th century works by several Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers.

According to UBS, the donation includes some of the most celebrated photographers of the last two centuries. It is made up of 166 photographs by 96 photographers, 75 of whom are — quote — underrepresented in the National Gallery, including several photographers who are women and artists of color. — end quote.

Some of the hallmark names you may recognize include Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Alfred Stieglitz, Carleton Watkins, Edward Steichen, Eadweard Muybridge, Timothy O’Sullivan, Charles Savage, Robert Adams, Edward Burtynsky, Terry Evans, Emmet Gowin, Mark Klett, and David Maisel.

The donation also includes works by Latin and South American photographers like the legendary Sebastião Salgado, Graciela Iturbide — whose work is among my personal favorites, and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Flor Garduño, Valdir Cruz, Agustin Estrada.

Mary Rozell, Global Head of the UBS Art Collection said, “This gift demonstrates UBS’s ongoing commitment to sharing its artworks with a wide audience.”

But who is UBS, and why did they donate all this expensive photography to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC?

As briefly mentioned before, UBS is a Switzerland-based global wealth-manager and investment bank, which advises the uber-wealthy on how to manage and invest their assets. They are headquartered in Zurich. 

UBS owns a collection of more than 30,000 artworks, including paintings, photography, sculpture, video, and installations by artists from around the world. Their holdings are widely recognized as one of the most important corporate art collections.

UBS has acquired their collection over a period of decades through mergers and acquisitions of other institutions with their own collections, including Union Bank of Switzerland, Swiss Bank Corporation and PaineWebber Inc. It was through the acquisition of PaineWebber that UBS acquired the photographs in this donation. I’ll talk about that more in a minute.

UBS says the guiding mission of its art collection is to work with and collect art from the – quote –  “most significant artists of our time.”

Since 2019, UBS has exhibited art to the public at its UBS Art Gallery at 1285 Avenue of the Americas in New York. They host three to four rotating exhibits a year there. By the way, you can also visit that exhibit virtually — look for a link in the show notes or on my blog at i catch shadows dot com.

UBS says its commitment to art  is –quote — “not merely as a source of inspiration and enjoyment, but as a tool that drives innovation and sparks conversation around the most significant issues of our time.” — End quote —

It’s also a pretty darn great investment opportunity for those with a lot of expendable income. Am I right?

UBS is also very active in the art market in other ways. For example, they commission and publish annual art market reports, in which they seek to understand the trends in the art market and the values and interests of HNW or Health Net Worth individuals — you know… very rich people — defined as those with liquid assets of at least $1 million. 

But why did UBS choose the National Gallery of Art for this generous donation?

UBS has said that it wanted the photographs to be preserved and exhibited in a place where they can receive wider viewership, and the National Gallery of Art claims to receive 4 million visitors per year — making it one of the most visited museums in the world. The tie of the distinctly American and Latin American subjects and artists seems to fit well with the National Gallery of Art in the nation’s capital, and of course access at the National Gallery of Art is free and open to the public.

I mentioned earlier that UBS gained this collection of photographs when it acquired PaineWebber in 2000. PaineWebber had hired a well-known curator and photographer named John Szarkowski. From 1962 to 1991 Szarkowski was the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, where he helped establish the careers and reputations of a number of great photographers, and where he helped cement the importance of photography as fine art.

The New York Times called Szarkowski “the most powerful curator in the field,” at the same time acknowledging that for much of his reign at MoMa, there weren’t even very many other people doing what he did — working as curators of photography in museums. Szarkowski called his 29-year curatorial job at the museum very demanding albeit interesting.

He also wrote books on photography, taught at Harvard and Yale and NYU, and contributed to the National Endowment for the Arts as a photography panelist. After he left MoMa, Szarkowski went back to making his own photographs, but continued working as an independent curator as well, for MoMa and others. He also retained the title of director emeritus at MoMa.In 1991, after his retirement from MoMa, Szarkowski was brought in by PaineWebber chairman and CEO Donald Marron to begin a photography collection to complement the firm’s art collection. It took Szarkowski several years to build the collection for PaineWebber. And as I said, the collection came with PaineWebber into the fold at UBS in 2000.

Szarkowski — a native of Wisconsin — died in 2007 at the age of 81, as result of a stroke.

There have been numerous books and documentaries published about his work and about his monumental impact on the field of photography from his work as a curator.

Sources and Links

National Gallery of Art. “UBS Donates Major American Landscape Photographs to National Gallery of Art.

New York Times. “A Photography Curator Narrows His Focus. After 29 Years of Displaying Others’ Work, John Szarkowski Returns to His Own.”

UBS. “UBS Donates 166 Works of Photography to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

UBS Art Gallery Virtual Exhibition (Scroll down the page for the link)

Wikipedia. “John Szarkowski.

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