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Driving Forward: The Cultural Gravitas of BMW



BMW automobiles have long been described as works of art, but when it comes to its famed art cars, featuring the work of modern masters such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and the two newest additions to the program, conceptual artist John Baldessari and multimedia artist Cao Fei, BMW’s reach goes beyond the confines of glass and steel.

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Jeff Koons, BMW Art Car #17 (M3 GT2), 2010

The same could be said of BMW’s Art Journey, a joint program between the luxury automaker and Art Basel. The Journey is offered to one artist at Art Basel Hong Kong and one at Miami, based on their work as well as a proposal detailing a specific trip anywhere in the world they envision to further their art. Parameters are minimal — as long as the Journey “lasts at least two weeks and takes place on this planet,” says Dr. Thomas Girst, BMW’s head of cultural engagement.

Now that Art Basel Miami Beach 2015 has wrapped and the artists for the second Journey have been whittled down to three, we talked to Girst about BMW’s partnership with Art Basel, the company’s unwavering support of the arts, what’s next for the chosen artists and the cultural gravitas that continues to drive BMW.

Previews Inside Out You just revealed the shortlist for the second recipient of the BMW Art Journey at this year’s Art Basel. Can you tell us about them?

Dr. Thomas Girst The three shortlisted artists chosen at Art Basel Miami 2015 have until January to develop their journey proposal, with the recipient to be announced in February. The artists include:

  • Henning Fehr and Phillipp Rühr of Cologne, Germany, whose project, “Polyrhythm Technoir,” is a three-part film allegory focused on electronic music
  • Dan Bayles of Los Angeles, whose work layers photography, drawing, architectural renderings, collage, and abstraction in an exploration of politically sensitive sites
  • Fritzia Irizar of Mexico City, a multi-disciplinary artist who created a project that examines the visual and emotional evolution and transformation of Mexican symbolisms during the past 105 years

Previews Inside Out The BMW Art Journey takes the company’s support of the arts to a new level. Why is this particular program important?

Dr. Thomas Girst As a mobility company, the idea of a road trip resonates with us. But that’s way too simple. The most important part of this for us is to return something to the societies in which we’re doing successful business. It’s easy to sponsor an art exhibit or an opera production, or to sponsor Art Basel through our continuing shuttle service. We remain keen to do that, but we asked ourselves what more we could do that will resonate with the artistic community and allow people to experience art in a different way. Being able to send someone on a trip of their creation that allows them to study, meet people, see new things, open discourse and turn the whole experience into art — that’s the main idea of the Art Journey. The fact that only a few people will be able to participate in it because only two recipients are chosen every year makes it even more interesting.

Previews Inside Out I know you had the opportunity to travel with the first recipient, Samson Young, on part of his extensive journey. What was your takeaway from that experience?

Dr. Thomas Girst Samson’s journey was centered on documenting iconic bells throughout the world. He came to us with a detailed itinerary that included several countries — Morocco, France, Russia. For Samson to be able to take his idea and bring it to life was quite an experience. Local historians helped inform us. In one city, the mayor himself opened up churches for us. Samson would hear the bells ring and create drawings from them. It was inspiring.

BMW at Art Basel Miami Beach 2012 on Wednesday, December 5th. (Vanessa Rogers/newscast)

BMW at Art Basel Miami Beach 2012 on Wednesday, December 5th. (Vanessa Rogers/newscast)

Previews Inside Out What, specifically, is BMW’s connection with Art Basel as it relates to the Journey?

Dr. Thomas Girst We’ve been partnering with Art Basel since 2001 with our shuttle service, and since the art fair expanded to Miami and Hong Kong, we have made it a global partner. We approached Art Basel because we wanted to showcase our commitment to the arts and what we do in the cultural world in a different way. Art Basel was eager to be a part of it, and we developed the idea of the Art Journey together. Art Basel assists in providing a space for the artists to showcase their work at the fair.

Previews Inside Out Art Basel is considered one of the premier art shows on the continent. How does working with it on the Art Journey fit into the BMW brand?

Dr. Thomas Girst We made a conscious decision to partner with Art Basel. It is an amazing art fair that has positioned itself internationally. The commercial side of Art Basel is alluring to us; our shuttle service satisfies that aspect. The cultural aspect enters through the ability to create something with the fair that is separated from a sales focus. It’s using the platform of Art Basel to create something meaningful and represent ourselves as the cultural brand we are, in a wonderful setting.

Previews Inside Out What can you tell us about how the recipient is chosen? What makes one artist stand above another?


Dr. Thomas Girst By the time we get to Art Basel, we have a short list of three artists who have been chosen by committee. The judges are tasked with deciding among them. They spent four to five hours at Art Basel Hong Kong going through the galleries, looking through all the work.

There’s nothing in particular the judges are looking for that would help them choose one or another in terms of criteria. Once they have reached this stage, it has more to do with how the artists’ proposal holds up and what their individual vision is. It’s clear the artists have contemplated their journey for some time. They are eager, passionate, visionary about what they want to achieve.

Distinguished Jury For BMW Art Journey

For Art Basel Miami, a few distinguished art curators were among those strolling the Positions sector for emerging artists. And they had more than art appreciation on their minds; their objective was to help select the next recipients of the BMW Art Journey.

“On the opening day of Art Basel, the jury spend several hours looking at the artists’ work,” says Girst.

That jury included:

  • Juan Gaitán (Curator based in Mexico City)
  • Massimiliano Gioni (Artistic Director New Museum, New York City)
  • Gabriele Horn (Director KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin)
  • Victoria Noorthoorn (Director Museo de Arte Moderna, Buenos Aires)
  • Bisi Silva (Director Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos)

The chosen artist for the next journey is expected to be announced in early 2016.



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Driving Forward: The Cultural Gravitas of BMW

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