Insights / Art & Mobility
”The art world is an ideal platform and playing field for companies”
On how the creative industries can help to build a stronger brand
24 May 2023

Who are you?

— I’m Global Head of Cultural Engagement for the BMW Group. We’ve been active in the arts for over 50 years with hundreds of initiatives worldwide. And we don’t only want to partake in the cultural world, but also be part of the narrative in a way that doesn’t compromise the creative freedom of any artist that we work with.

How have those years been?

— The last book I’ve written is called All The Time in the World. And, I say in the preface that in the age of the shortcut, I celebrate the detour. In the age of the algorithm, I argue for serendipity. There’s something to be said for us not going from A to B in the fastest sort of way, there’s discoveries to be made along the way and sometimes you make discoveries where you were least bound to find them. Steve Jobs made that very clear in his commencement speech for Stanford University, that I think that over 40 million people have seen online. He then said that if he hadn’t chanced upon that calligraphy class at Reed College — where he had long ago dropped out of — Apple would maybe have looked very differently. He had no business and he had paid no tuition — he went to that class purely by chance. And that, he said, defined the look and the design of Apple, which we all know is also one of the big reasons why this product is being bought. So, what I mean is that serendipity can also pay off as business exercise, says Girst. He continues:

— When it comes to us and how we work with culture, we have been at the forefront. Two years ago, we presented The Ultimate AI Masterpiece together with the great US collective ArtDrunk, where we had a lot of art being used for an algorithm that then created new works of art that were projected onto a car. And we’re continuing that this year, with another collaboration with ArtDrunk.

— It’s also about being long-term partners in the arts. And when I say long-term, we’re not sponsors but partners. Sponsoring, anybody can do that — any institution needs budget. But that is a purely monetary transaction. Instead, we are looking into interaction in the form of long-term partnerships. We bring a lot of know-how and network to the table because we’ve been active in the arts for so long. We also have engineers and designers working with cutting edge technology that is of interest to many artists which they can delve into and make use of what we have, which is sometimes more than their studio has to offer when it comes to exploring AR, VR, and AI. At the same time, creative freedom is the most important thing to us in order to come up with groundbreaking works of art, where the artists and institutions that we work with have the safety of exploring what it is that they need most further and to assist in their work. We don’t have any vested interest in the art world.

These two industries, art and mobility, might seem quite far from each other. What are the challenges when merging them?

— You’re 100% right. I think that what has been a demarcation line between, let’s say arts and business, has now become more of a permeable membrane. There’s a mutual interest in both of these worlds which speak different languages and certainly have different challenges. When it comes to, for instance, partnering with opera houses or London Symphony Orchestra, it’s not so much about brand building and CRM but about CSR. It’s about what you return to society as a successful business enterprise. And I think that is where the long-term engagement comes in with institutions, museums, opera houses, and orchestras around the world. That where it’s not so much about the visibility that we generate, but about being a corporate citizen with a purpose and giving something back. I do believe that both of these things are essential for what it is that we try to do and achieve within the culture. But when you ask about the difference, I also see the parallels. To me it was very interesting that museum institutions were asking themselves to no longer be about something but be for someone instead. How they turn from a restrained container to an exuberant companion, thinking of turning the spectator into a contributor. So this is a whole discussion that was being had and is still being had today; How do you turn the spectator into a contributor? And we say the same thing in the automobile industry, with the customer as contributor — how can they configurate their car so it fits their every need? And the same with the spectators; how do we reach our audience? Who is that audience and how do we make ourselves relevant for the future? I see a parallel there. 

What are your best advices for companies to be more involved in the creative industries in a reliable way?

— I think if you jump from event to event, it’s better not do it — you should be in there for the long haul. If we talk business, we are not there for altruistic or philanthropic reasons — we are there for the visibility, for the image, and for the reputation of the company and its brands. I would think that the art world is an ideal platform and playing field for companies, if they do it right. They can do a lot, and reach a lot more visibility with less budget than in other fields, let’s say in sports or in entertainment — although, of course, all of these lines are blurring now, it is my recognition that more companies, more luxury brands, and our competitors are going into the arts because it seems that everybody needs the artists to create key visuals for the vision of the company, to be shown and showcased. I see the tech brands going into the art world as well, where they more or less offer their own hardware and software rather than being sponsors of sorts. So my advice would really be, what is your USP as a company? What are your company goals? What are your five biggest values? And how do you translate those goals and those key messages of what it is that you do into within the art world? It should be based on strategic business observations and not so much on the personal affinities of the CEO. You should gear your cultural engagement based on the parameters of what your company itself stands for.

— I think corporate citizenship has become much more important because people are looking at companies as if they were human beings. How do you behave as a company? If you were one person, would you be interested in culture? Would you be going to a museum or would you be eating fast food around the corner? In order to do something meaningful, you have to know exactly what it is that you stand for and how that can translate into the arts. That way, you can do amazing things with the budgets that fit the purpose.

You just took the stage here at Market Art Fair. What was it about?

— There’s a German writer called Kampowski and he just said that humans are capable of releasing thoughts into words. It’s a very simple thing, either by talking or by writing, but it’s what sets us apart from pretty much all the rest of the species on planet Earth. And we can either raise havoc with that or we can contribute to beauty. There’s this joke in the New Yorker where two planets are meeting, one of them is planet Earth and the other one is another planet who turns to earth and says, ’what’s wrong with you? You look sick’, and then Earth says ’I got Homo Sapiens’. The other planet says, ’don’t worry, it will go away’. So, all I’m saying is that we have been on the planet in Europe for 40,000 years now, how much longer? And what do we do with our own time? The 70 or so years that we have, do we contribute to something beautiful and meaningful, or do we contribute to the opposite? I think that artists more than any others are able to delve deeper inside of themselves, touch upon parts of their individuality that we can experience by looking at their art. So we don’t have to go there ourselves. I think that exploratory, deep recognition of the human can best be put into, or expressed via, the arts. And great art is something that touches on that level that reaches a depth within ourselves that we wouldn’t have reached without the artist even going further. And speaking of ugliness and the beauty, the art world is a $60 billion dollar business. Already in the 60s, Marcel Duchamp was complaining about quick art that’s only churned out for the markets and for selling. But there’s no need to get cynical, if you take your time and pace yourself right.

Thomas Girst at Market Art Fair.

”Everybody is talking about artificial intelligence — why is nobody talking about artificial stupidity?”

Is art more important than ever, to work against this ugliness that you mentioned?

— I would hope so, and for many reasons, says Girst. First of all, I think that art knows no nation-state and is, by definition, intercultural. Whoever tries to finagle art into something else is just playing wrong. If you try to look at the roots of any art movement, you will find that many people around the world have contributed to them, which I think is important. Just look at the trajectory, the roots, and the many sources that great things come from. Or take Chat GPT, a game changer which sets different parameters for human beings on the planet. Not Chat GPT itself, but the discussion that we are having evolving around it. And I believe that art can play another important role in this regard; the more we live in a digital world, the more we are lusting for the analog. Edmund Burke (Irish philosopher, Ed’s note) in the 18th century described ’grace as a movement’. And if we think of grace as a movement, we can also think of choreographed bodies moving through a space. Why has performance become so important all of a sudden? Because there’s a longing not so much as a correction to the digital world. Not so much as a digital detox escape room, the museum as an escape room, and the last haven for authenticity, but more so in terms of being able to become maybe better humans in face of AI taking over many of the things that humans did on this planet prior to its arrival. Hito Steyerl (German filmmaker) said years ago already, that everybody is talking about artificial intelligence — why is nobody talking about artificial stupidity? I would hope that the art will retain its importance by its analogue status. Not that artists cannot delve into the technical world or are interested in cutting-edge technology, as they always have been — from how the invention of the telescope has changed the renaissance art around, to X-rays,and the early avant gardes of the 20th century. Art was always thriving on technological advances. Again, when it comes to looking at such technologies at the moment, I think that NFT doesn’t necessarily stand for non fungible token, but it can also stand for neoliberal futile trash. To me, that is art at the turbo capitalist centre of the art market. Art can be a lot more and it can be tough to digest. It can challenge you. In order to get meaning out of something, you have to really delve into it. And if art leaves the door open for that and not become as superficial as so much is around us, then it has found its purpose. Otherwise, it’s losing its track and its footing a little bit — because it has become such a big business.