Thomas Girst interview: Communicating BMW Art Cars (2009)

Does this unique mix of art, design and publicity offer a blueprint?

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Art Design Publicity at ADC | 10 June 2009 | Updated 8 Aug 2012
Co-partner: Sculpture magazine, May 2009 issue. This is an extended version of the excerpts from the interview published in Sculpture, which was shaped by the practicalities of hard copy and word count constraints. These additions are indicated with a grey background.

Thomas Girst interview: Communicating BMW Art Cars

Marriages of brand-name artistic talent and luxury consumer goods don’t get much better than the partnership showcased on a recent summer day in southern Germany. At the Formula 1 Grand Prix racetrack, racing enthusiast Frank Stella was co-driving a [1979] BMW M1 ProCar hand-painted by Andy Warhol. As spectators watched, Warhol’s Pop artwork accelerated into a colorful blur of speed and sound. For the past five years, Thomas Girst has been in charge of all matters concerning BMW’s Art Car project: guiding the commissioning process, coordinating communications and marketing, and scheduling international exhibitions. Girst studied art history at the University of Hamburg and New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Later, he worked at a New York gallery specializing in German Expressionism and served as research manager at the nonprofit Art Science Research Laboratory. He has also contributed to German art magazines and national daily newspapers.

BMW M1 group 4 racing version Art Car Andy Warhol
BMW M1 group 4 racing version Art Car by Andy Warhol (1979). This car was co-driven by Frank Stella during the German Formula 1 Grand Prix during the initial laps before the race.

The Art Car program began in 1975 with a car painted by Alexander Calder (on view at the Irish Museum of Modern Art through June 21). The collection now includes 16 works by renowned artists, including Stella, David Hockney, Jenny Holzer, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and most recently, Olafur Eliasson. Created as “rolling sculptures,” the Art Cars are based (when not on tour) at the BMW Museum in Munich. Over the years, they have been exhibited at numerous museums and galleries around the world, including the Louvre and the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao. Eliasson’s Art Car (not a decorated racecar, but a non-functional artwork) debuted at Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne in 2007 and was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last year. This year, after showings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York’s Grand Central Terminal, an installation of BMW Art Cars by Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg is on a three-city museum tour in Mexico.

BMW 3.0 CSL Art Car Alexander Calder
BMW 3.0 CSL as Art Car by Alexander Calder (1975).

The following are excerpts of my conversation with Thomas Girst:

R.J. Preece: How did the Art Cars initiative begin?

Thomas Girst: The initial idea came from a French auctioneer named Hervé Poulain, who was also a racetrack driver and very good friends with well-known artists. Poulain asked Alexander Calder to design the exterior of his BMW 3.0 CSL. The car then took part in the 24-hour race in Le Mans. In the ’80s, with the internationalization of the company, our different operating companies in national markets were asking for Art Cars. They were primarily created for individual markets. However, starting with Olafur Eliasson’s car— the 16th in the series— we decided to leave the artist selection to professionals in the art field, including curators from major museums around the world.

BMW 320i Turbo Art Car Roy Lichtenstein
BMW 320i Turbo as Art Car by Roy Lichtenstein (1977).

R.J. Preece: Over the years, what has been the purpose of the BMW Art Car?

Thomas Girst: It’s changed over time. In the beginning, the cars were raced. There wasn’t much of a public relations effort around them, nor were communications opportunities sought. Since then, some of the Art Cars have been used in advertisements to show that BMW is a player in the arts. With the Olafur Eliasson work, part of what we are doing is raising awareness of alternative and renewable energy sources.

At the same time, BMW sponsors over 100 cultural events each year that have nothing to do with the Art Cars. Most of the things that we sponsor deal with contemporary art, classical music, and design and architecture. It’s rather diverse though, if you look at it from a global perspective. Our sponsorship has included a street festival in Mexico City, a jazz festival in Beirut, and an arts discussion forum in Melbourne. So, some of our sponsorship has been about supporting events to create a platform and an awareness that make certain things possible. It’s been our goal to develop innovative formats that position the company as a corporate citizen. We also aim to show that we are a trustworthy, credible, and authentic player in the arts over the long haul.

R.J. Preece: But there’s a visibility element to this too. It’s not only about being a good corporate citizen, it’s also about communicating being a good corporate citizen, right?

Thomas Girst: Yes, as a company, we are not altruistically involved in the arts, that is for sure. We, of course, want to build up the image: the image of BMW. We want a positive association from our engagement in the arts for the brand as a whole. Over the years, our involvement in blue-chip art fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach, Art Basel, and Frieze London has certainly had an “in your face” approach: we want to be there with our cars, shuttle the VIPs, and thus create visibility, presence, and exposure for our brand within a commercial enterprise.

Working with artists directly or sponsoring cultural institutions is a whole different approach. As much as we love our logo, we wouldn’t want to see it projected “Batman style” onto the red curtain before the Philharmonic Orchestra starts to play. These situations call for subtlety. The audience is highly sophisticated— and while wanting to be recognized, the last thing we want to do is get between art and the spectator.

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