Brisbane’s UAP takes art to the people

Good Fences Make Good Neighbours by Ai Weiwei, New York City

Dan and Matt Tobin are brothers who run global art and design consultancy, UAP (Urban Art Projects). With its main studio and workshop in Brisbane, Australia, other key studios and workshops in Shanghai and New York, and satellite offices in Melbourne, Singapore, Shenzhen, Detroit and Dubai, the company collaborates with artists, architects, developers and designers to deliver creative outcomes for the public realm.

Now employing 200+ staff worldwide and collaborating with world-famous names (Ai Weiwei, Frank Gehry, Florentijn Hofman), UAP has us wanting to know more about their business and about their experience as finalists in this year’s Premier of Queensland’s Export Awards.

Dan Tobin of UAP
Matt Tobin of UAP

When you meet people at a barbecue, how do you describe what UAP does?
Matt: UAP collaborates with creatives — artists, architects and designers — to deliver projects that enhance the public realm.

Tell us how UAP started.

Dan: My brother Matt and I were fresh out of art school and the art-based foundry that we worked for had just announced they were moving off-shore. Rather than find another job, we decided to set up shop ourselves. We took out a business loan and bought a metal workshop in western Brisbane that had a staff of three and made reo-bar frames for the building industry. It took us a year to get the foundry set up and another year to win our first casting job, but then we were underway.

You’ve been in business since 1993. What’s the secret to sustaining a business that long?

Dan: Lots of hard work, determination, and a never-say-die attitude. Running your own business is a skill you learn along the way, especially if you’re a couple of 23-year-olds like we were. Our father taught us to always to over-deliver, to give the client a better outcome than they dared to imagine. And when things go awry, as they tend to do in the construction industry, it’s how you solve the problem that matters to your client.

Studio 505, Wintergarden, Queen Street Mall, Brisbane

When you started UAP, the internet wasn’t widely used. How has the internet helped, hindered or facilitated trade for your team?

Matt: I remember receiving and sending our first fax and thinking what a positive impact such speedy communication was going to have on the business! With the arrival of the internet, that access to fast communication and enormous amounts of information has been invigorating. It enables us to work on almost any project at any location around the world. While the speed of communication is invigorating, we sometimes need to remind our clients that the creative process does in fact benefit from appropriate immersion, thoughtfulness and time — so sometimes we need to reset expectations to ensure best outcomes are achieved.

Do you remember your first export contract? What was it?

Dan: KAUST (King Abdullaziz University of Science and Technology). American firm HOK approached us to join their design team and attend a workshop in Atlanta and develop an art strategy. It was very exciting for our young team to be invited to join the international team of consultants who were delivering an extraordinary university sited on the Red Sea, just north of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. We delivered an art masterplan and commissioned 15 international and 22 MENA region artists across both the university campus and the surrounding residential community. UAP was also engaged to design KAUST’s iconic Al-Fanar (Beacon) that marks the harbour entrance.

UTS Sydney, Gehry Partners

Which came first, your Shanghai outpost or New York City?

Matt: Shanghai came first and was established in 2009. Both Shanghai and New York service the largest economies in the world. Shanghai has the optimism and excitement of a young, fast-moving, new-world market, whereas New York has the steady pace, sophisticated air and savvy of an experienced ‘old hand’.

Tell us your favourite thing about doing business in each of those cities.

Dan: Twenty-eight million inhabitants ensure Shanghai is a city that embraces you from the moment you arrive. The art scene is extraordinary and growing fast, with foundations, galleries and fairs opening almost every month and local and international artists being shown. I always try to visit The Long Museum and the Yuz Museum, and the latest go-to is the Fosun Art Foundation in their new museum on the Bund, designed by Thomas Heatherwick. Shanghai is vibrant, edgy, and still a bit frontier!

New York is much more restrained and has much more space on the sidewalk. The city is also home to some great public projects and associated art programs: take a walk along the Highline and its new extension to Hudson Yards and visit Heatherwick’s new work Vessel, which is close to completion. Other temporary art installations can be seen at Madison Square Park (Erwin Redl’s Whiteout opens in November), and the Public Art Fund manages sites throughout the city, with Ai WeiWei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors opening in October. It’s always good to be across the Van Alen Institute’s latest project as they continue their advocacy for better designed cities.

How does a company from Brisbane end up working with Frank Gehry and Ai Weiwei?

Dan: We’ve always been interested in working with architects and artists that we admire. When we first opened our studio in New York we connected with the Public Art Fund to see if we might work with them in some way. Ai Weiwei’s project was one of the first opportunities we discussed. It’s been a great process, with Weiwei based in Berlin, our studio team in New York and our workshop in Shanghai. We’ve been able to develop a strong working relationship with him and his team. Gehry’s team reached out to us after UAP was recommended to his team. The project, a hand-beaten stainless steel staircase, was introduced to our New York studio, built at our workshop in Shanghai, and finally project managed and installed by our Brisbane team.

Kraken by Florentijn Hofman, Shenzhen, China

Frank Gehry and Ai Weiwei are world-renowned architects and artists. Who are you working with that we should keep our eye on?

Dan: In Australia, Bureau Proberts (Finalist for 2017 WAF Civic and Community Award) is someone we collaborate with regularly. Shop Architects and KPF, out of New York, are doing amazing projects around the globe. In China, we’re working with leading developers like Tishman Speyer, Hines and CR Land.

What’s been the best thing to come from participating in the Premier of Queensland’s Export Awards?

Matt: Participation in the export awards makes you pause for a moment to assess and reflect on the effectiveness of strategy and the achievements made by the business in the recent past. And also it’s a discipline to review what may not have worked so well and where improvements can be made.

When’s the next Brisbane studio tour? We’d love to come along.

Dan: We host three to five studio tours every month. They’re mostly industry-related, but we host secondary and tertiary students as well. If you’re in town, just give us a call and we’ll arrange a visit.

Thank you! We may take you up on that offer.

XXX Times Square with Love, J. Mayer H. und Partner

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Trade and Investment Queensland is the Queensland government’s global business agency, helping Queensland exporters take their products to world markets, and promoting Queensland as the perfect place for investment.