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Paulina Kolczynska Conversation with Art Advisory of the Coutts Bank
A Contemporary makeover for Coutts

(Published by Tema Celeste May 2001)

Edward Ruscha, Barns and Farms, 1983, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 162.5 cm. Courtest Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation, Zurich.

It has been exactly ten years since Coutts Bank began to redesign its strict, old-fashioned images, under the guidance of Sabina Korfmann-Bodenmann who was appointed by an international management team, based in Zurich.  With the formation of the Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation, in September 1992, the bank embraced the idea of engaging art as part of its financial activities.  Supporting the awarded artists over the long-term, the CCAF provides an unprecedented example of contemporary art patronage launching and promoting emerging international artists throughout their careers.  The bank has thus far supported fifteen artists with outstanding results and what seems to be at the core of the success is the commitment of the financial institution.  In the cases, for example, of Luc Tuymans, Andrea Zittel, and Vija Celmins, the support proved to be a significant factor in strengthening earch artist’s international recognition, as well as the marketability of their works.  Sabine Korfmann-Bodenmann explains what prompted such choice.

Paulina Kolczynska: Why did Coutts Bank establish the Contemporary Art Foundation?

Sabine Korfmann-Bodenmann:  We made a particular decision to engage more with cutting edge art in order to show that we are very much part of today’s world and, indeed, contemporary art became the promotional vehicle for the whole company.  In order to be successful in such a venture, however, the financial institution must be seriously engaged in continuous projects, as opposed to just supporting the occasional exhibition.   We wanted something long lasting, and that is why have created the Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation.  Also, we have to cater to our Private Banking clients whose profile has undergone quite a change.  No longer the old world types who just want to go to a classical music concert, but now there is also a crowd of young entrepreneurs who maybe start out as amateur art buyers or art enthusiasts and evolve into keen connoisseurs.  It is important to grasp that the bank has a completely different role today.  Whereas traditionally, even up to a couple of years ago, one might go to a personal banker to talk only about investments, today, ideally you go to your banker and cover all of your wealth aspects such as securities and assets, including insurance.  That is why it is important to have the investment risk diversified so much.  Between the comfortable bulk of money and a great appetite for growth, one can show more individualism.

Paulina Kolczynska:  How does the foundation operate and what is so unique about it?

Sabine Korfmann-Bodenmann:  What we do is promote cutting edge art, which is selected by a special committee of highly respected art professionals outside of Coutts Bank.  Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate Gallery London, Kasper Konig, Director of Museum Ludwig in Cologne, and Gary Garrells, Curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, are the independent committee members who select three promising new artists bi-annually.  The criteria and selection of award winners are at the sole discretion of the committee.  We rely on the opinion of these experts to choose artists who are about to make a big career jump.  For example, in 1994, we selected Katharina Fritsch, who was not a very well known artist at the time.  However, we do not buy art, from these award winners, as we feel that it would create a conflict between our roles as both patron and collector.  Monetary awards go towards supporting a particular project of the artist’s choice such as: exhibition costs,  the printing of a catalogue, the production costs of a new art work.  For example, after Katharina Fritsch received the award in 1994, the Foundation supported her exhibitions in both Hamburg and Vienna that year and later , in 1997, co-sponsored a major exhibition of hers at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Basel.  After Craigie Horsfield received his award (also in 1994), the Foundation sponsored a sound installation in Stuttgart in 1999, which was Horsfield’s first solo show in Germany.  So, where possible, the Foundation continuous to support projects and also peripheral events such as evening receptions during ongoing exhibitions.

Paulina Kolczynska: Is the Foundation helpful in creating better relationships or establishing new ones in the Private Banking sector?

Sabine Korfmann-Bodenmann:  Of the fifteen artists awarded thus far, we follow their careers and their exhibitions schedules very closely, and we always try to organize an exclusive Coutts Bank , event around them.  Since we have fifty offices in over fifteen locations worldwide, with links to other institutions, we have organized many such affairs.  It is usually a reception, a cocktail party in conjunction with a special exhibition tour and dinner at the exhibition site, where we invite our clients.  We want to handle our clients in a special way and provide them with direct contact to the art.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Today, 1996, 35mm film and video installation. Courtesy Crystal Eye Ltd, Helsinki

Paulina Kolczynska: Why, despite such a great economical growth, did Coutts Bank decide not to create Art Advisory Services?

Sabina Korfmann-Bodenmann:  We do not have an art advisory department for a few reasons. Firstly, it was too costly to create it and I felt that there would be a very slim chance to get the best specialists to work for a bank rather  than an art institution-and we are always looking for the best advisors for our clients.  Also, because we belong to one of the largest institution in Europe, the Royal Bank of Scotland, we have wide range international specialists outside of the bank.  That is why we can still handle our client’s requests for a sale or a purchase and how we can get access to the appropriate specialist to arrange transactions.   What is attractive to our clients is that they may remain completely anonymous at all times, if they choose.  Beside these activities, we also do estimations, help to set up trusts, and arrange moving works of art in and out of the country.  Estate planning, however, is the biggest issue.  If someone has a good collection, they certainly think about its future and we can be very helpful in that arena. 

Paulina Kolczynska: Coutts Bank is also active art buyer.  Do you see art as an investment?

Sabine Korfmann-Bodenmann:   We buy art for our offices.  In our collection we have examples of works on paper by established or semi-established artists as: Georg Baselitz, Christo, Alex Katz, Thomas Ruff, and Andy Warhol.  We do not however, consider these works as an investment.  In my personal opinion, I don’t think art should be bought merely as an investment.  If you look at collectors who made substantial money by buying Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, or Roy Lichtenstein, for example, they are usually highly involved in the art world.  You have to have a passion for art and try to get to know artists themselves if possible.  That’s the best way.