David Ummels: ‘Art is there to give everyone that courage.’

From investment banking to cultural diplomacy with Art for Guernsey

As we have frequently demonstrated throughout our publication’s history, a strong background in money management is not mutually exclusive with art patronage, quite the opposite, in fact. David Ummels is something of a standard bearer for this truism.

Ummels has a background in finance, working with different banking institutions in Brussels, Paris and London, before setting up his own investment vehicle. Today, he is equally well, if not better known as the founder of Art for Guernsey. We spoke to him ahead of the launch of a one-off Renoir exhibition coming to the islands of Guernsey this September, made possible by himself:

‘I always had an interest in art but didn’t start collecting until 1998 when I bought an estate in Gascony, the former hunting pavilion of Henri de Navarre. There were a lot of rooms to decorate and fill with furniture, and this resonated with my love for antiques and the classics.

‘My acquisitions at the time were based on my own subjective perception of beauty and of decorative value, as well as what I found personally inspiring as a connection to my inner self and personality.

‘The task of decorating the property was daunting but it helped me develop an understanding of, and an appreciation for different styles in furniture and art generally.

‘Today, my collecting is more eclectic than I can begin to describe: from Belgian surrealism to 19th century Russian art and literature, to Renaissance art, to African Igbo sculptures; from Magritte to Pierre Aleshinsky to Ilya Repin, to the Soviet artists. 

‘My interests have evolved too and in the last 7-8 years I have been collecting contemporary art, which allows me to develop a connection with the individuals creating it. I take a personal interest in the artists and try to be less subjective. 

‘I wouldn’t critique an artist showing me something I don’t like because I subscribe to the wisdom of Paul Klee’s quote that a concept is worthless without its opposite (this is, in fact, my moto and I consider the opposite scenarios in my investment strategy too). This allows me to push the boundaries of lateral thinking. 

‘Being tolerant and accepting of differences is made possible through better understanding. 

‘Artists are helping with this because they have an incredible ability to observe and understand new ideas; through their works they emphasise differences and give one the courage to ask questions we wouldn’t necessarily dare to ask. In my view, art is there to give everyone that courage and, in the process, learn something new. 

‘I am interested in the narrative of contemporary artists.’

Art for Guernsey

‘I first came to Guernsey because I felt it was a good place to raise my family; I had never been involved in public life and didn’t imagine that I ever would be. 

‘I was blown away by high standards of integrity, courteousness and honesty on the island and fell in love with it. I wanted to do something that would allow me to give back to this society.

‘And while my passion for art had hitherto been private, the island has given me a platform to express it in a public way that now contributes greatly to the cultural life in Guernsey.

‘When Art for Guernsey was born, a number of international artists came along to participate in the artists in residence program and became, in their own way, ambassadors for the island. In my opinion, and as illustrated throughout the Renaissance, for example, Art and Science are intimately connected: scientists can rely on artists to give them the courage to ask the “stupid questions” (the ones that can lead to progress; the questions that nobody dares to ask) rather than the “safe” questions. In science, “stupid questions” will lead to a new discovery, while “safe questions” will simply relate to something that has already been discovered by another scientist. Artists are there to explore those “stupid” scenarios in their body of work and give scientists the courage to dare test them.’

David Ummels speaking to a crowd
Photograph: John- Ross Hainey

Other collectors

‘For the first five to six years Art for Guernsey was basically me working with some professionals from the art world. But I felt that staging exhibitions was not enough; I wanted to generate cultural and social value for Guernsey. I had been advocating for years that there is a special good will on the island – if you ask nicely, you get positive response. And there are many collectors in Guernsey. So I started involving them, as well as all public stakeholders.

‘We started lending our collections, museum quality works, to schools – we basically loaned to any school willing to place a work of art in the class room. This initiative was incredibly fruitful in that it generated collateral education projects.

‘A Malevich work prompted pupils to learn Russian and more about Russian culture. Another school exhibited an engraving of a fortress, which prompted metaphorical exercises in storming the fortress, with strategic plans, building of catapults, and so on. The pupils studied the work without being instructed. The experience became a collaborative education project which became the subject of a movie.  

‘Art can help children develop critical skills. If you can read composition, you can read a business table. 

‘We are over-stimulated by social media and that reduces the attention span. Art can counter that.’

The Strong Room and Renoir exhibition

With the help of generous benefactors, Art for Guernsey has acquired its own gallery which will curate old masters and contemporary artists at the same time. Within the gallery is The Strong Room, a small but secure micro-museum. That room will be receiving works on loan from collectors and street artists will be exhibited side by side with old masters. 

The rest of the gallery will be dedicated to contemporary art, with the first floor being entirely reserved for children to create art. Art therapy is similarly encouraged in the local hospital, in a room designed as a spaceship. 

In September the museum will welcome a one-off Renoir exhibition, with his works from galleries and private collectors around the world coming together. The significance of this is that Renoir painted those exact works in Guernsey nearly 140 years ago to the day, in 1883. The works are therefore being reunited with their home.

The Renoir exhibition will run from September to December and celebrate both the artist’s legacy and the works he created while in Guernsey. Renoir spent time in Guernsey in an attempt to move away from the portraiture genre and created a number of landscapes while there.

In July 2019, Art for Guernsey put together a ‘Renoir Walk’ in the vicinity of Moulin Huet, encouraging participants to follow in Renoir’s footsteps and appreciate the views that inspired his paintings. Five steel frames have been specially commissioned to echo the ornate frames Renoir chose for his own artworks. These frames will be strategically placed along the route, allowing viewers to stand in the exact spots where Renoir worked on his paintings, and to see Moulin Huet Bay from exactly the same perspectives as the Frenchman did.

metal frame on renoir walk guernsey

‘To inaugurate the Renoir Walk, we realised we needed someone with an X-Factor reputation and credibility. Mr Cyrille Sciama, director of the Musée des Impressionnismes de Giverny, agreed to inaugurate the exhibition because he strongly shares in our conviction that art can play an active role in education. We forged a very strong friendship and the idea to curate an exhibition celebrating the inspiration that Renoir found in Guernsey emerged as evidence. 

‘Subsequently, in February 2020, one of the 15 paintings Renoir created in Guernsey, Rocher de Guernsey avec personage came up for auction at Christies. We managed to buy that work together with a number of collectors. We were motivated by inspiring the children of Guernsey and show them their cultural heritage.

‘Cultural enrichment apart, we use this art work as an ambassador of sorts: it gave us credibility with French museums to move forward with the exhibition. The Giverny team played a leading role in this project in terms of securing the artwork loans and we are absolutely delighted to have the Giverny Museum as a partner, especially as the Guernsey part of the exhibition takes place in their premises. They first will curate the exhibition in their premises from the 14th of July until the 10th of September and then the exhibition will be on show in Guernsey, at Candie. We are also delighted to have the Guernsey Museums as a partner at this occasion.

‘The Renoir exhibition will also run in Giverny from July to September 2023. Art is equally an exercise in cultural diplomacy in that it builds bridges between countries. 

‘For me personally, founding and managing Art for Guernsey has been a great learning curve as I have no previous experience in the public domain. At the same time, we have had enormous support from the community because people understand that what we do is authentic, not for personal aggrandisement, in addition to which they appreciate it’s being done for the benefit of their children.’

Art philanthropy

‘Artist engagement is very rewarding, in particular the ability to transform artists’ future and careers through patronage and sponsorship, creating opportunities and making sure they can sell their work at honest prices, without inflated commercial margins.

‘I feel I have been able to help bridge the art and business worlds. One of my proudest moments in this context is “discovering” Eugen Gorean in 2011, at a watercolour fair of 200 up and coming artists. He was at the time a first-year student from Moldova. I bought two beautiful works by him and we went on to correspond in a mixture of English and Russian. I sent him drawing paper and water colours and he sent me two of his works by way of a thank you.

‘I then invited him to Gascony, to do a residence at my estate. We went to museums and auction houses and I supported him in having his first solo exhibition. He is now a globally known artist and a great ambassador for Guernsey too. 

‘It is a privilege to be able to support deserving talent.’