Great Collectors and Their Ideas: Thomas Girst

Mark Rappolt talks to the art historian, curator, lecturer and and head of cultural engagement at the BMW Group

By Mark Rappolt

Thomas Girst studied art history, American studies and German literature at Hamburg University and New York University (DAAD Scholarship). He was the founding editor of the international literature and art anthology Die Aussenseite des Elementes (1991–2003) and the NY-based cultural correspondent for the German daily Die Tageszeitung. As research manager of the Art Science Research Laboratory under the directorship of Harvard University professor Stephen Jay Gould, Girst was editor-in-chief of Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal (1998–2003). Since 2003 he has served as head of cultural engagement at the BMW Group. He lectures at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and the Academy of Fine Arts Munich as well as at the Academy of Applied Sciences in Zürich. In 2012 he curated Marcel Duchamp in Munich 1912, whose catalogue he coedited. His most recent publications include The Indefinite Duchamp (2013), BMW Art Cars (2013), The Duchamp Dictionary (2014) and Art, Literature, and the Japanese American Internment Experience (2014).


How did you start working for BMW?

Thomas Girst

I just applied. Before that I was working in New York for Stephen Jay Gould, the late Harvard professor, for a not-for-profit called Art Science Research Laboratory, which was run out of his apartment, looking at the relationship between art and science.

AR Is there one?

TG Of course, big-time. For example, avantgarde artists picked up on X-rays, chaos theory and many other advances at the beginning of the twentieth century. Painting changed entirely when the telescope was invented, and even in ancient times there was a very deep connection, so deep in fact that the Greeks didn’t even differentiate between technology and the arts, it was all one term – techne. Which is something that’s important when I talk about BMW’s cultural engagement. I keep telling people that thousands of years ago there wouldn’t have been a differentiation between creating an amazing car and creating a work of art.

AR What attracted you to BMW?

TG It was partly their headquarters in Munich – my wife was working in the city – but at the same time I was interested in how you work within the coordinates of a successful international business enterprise like BMW without watering down the complexity of what culture constitutes. I thought that was a riddle waiting to be solved, and would lead to something that could be achieved in a sophisticated and smart way. I’d seen that BMW at that point was lacking an international strategy, and that a lot could be done. When you work for a company as big as BMW, with over 100,000 employees worldwide, and you’re the one person with a PhD in art history that’s gone into the company, nobody ever questions your knowledge, your network or what it is that you do best for the company. Whereas if you were to work in a museum and you were begging to write the entry for a catalogue on Albrecht Dürer, but you had written your PhD on a contemporary of Dürer, people would say you hadn’t got the required expertise. So there’s no power, there are hierarchies, whereas at BMW you have been hired to really change things around.

AR Were you hired to give BMW something they don’t have, a cultural impact that they don’t really have? Are you somehow operating a prosthesis, a fake limb?

Cultural engagement is neither about philanthropy nor altruism: it is about the visibility and reputation of the brand, make no mistake

TG The business of business is to do business, somebody smarter than me once said, but at the same time, the way companies are being looked at has changed over the past decade. It’s no longer solely about the shareholder; it’s about the stakeholder approach. It’s about the visibility beyond branding. How do you behave as a good corporate citizen? What do you do within a society that you work in, outside of your core business? Outside of selling cars? Companies are being looked at in that way, and that is true for the entire value chain. Before ‘sustainability’ became the big buzzword within business enterprises, and also within the arts, BMW prided itself on being number one within the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the number one car company in the world for eight consecutive years, and that doesn’t come from nothing. I don’t consider myself doing the nice shopwindow stuff for a company that otherwise just wants to do business. We do consider BMW a very cultured brand. Cultural engagement is neither about philanthropy nor altruism: it is about the visibility and reputation of the brand, make no mistake.

AR Does that mean there are limits on what you will do? Or the kind of art you might support?

TG If you look at what we’ve done in the past ten years, it doesn’t seem so.

AR I meant limits in terms of content – say if the work you were supporting involved sexually explicit material.

TG I’ll tell you one thing that I would say separates sponsorship from what we call partnerships, collaborations. A partnership means sticking together in good and bad times. We are not embracing it, but we don’t shy away from controversy.

AR Let’s say an artist proposed making some incredibly rightwing video…

TG First of all, as BMW, we’re not after brand recognition. If I were to emblazon the BMW logo on the red curtain before the philharmonic started to play, we would put off the same people that we’re trying to reach. We don’t get all of them into the dealerships, but we get to engage in their walks of life. We get to create an experience for them that’s hopefully not interchangeable with whatever our competition has to offer in the cultural field.

If you want to do something trustworthy and something reliable, you should never interfere with the content of the programme

You’re asking about sexual or extreme political content – this is why, as we do not have the expertise in dealing with these subjects in relation to art, yet want to be seen as a responsible and reliable partner within the artworld, we put trust in those we partner with and do not commission individual artists outside of the BMW Art Car series. We have long-term relationships with cultural institutions – the National Gallery, the Guggenheim Museum and many others that are on eye-level with BMW as a premium car manufacturer (which means they probably have the reputation, the visibility, that BMW does in the car industry). I talk about collaboration or about co-initiation, or something like that, which means we never mess with the content of the programme. If you want to do something trustworthy and something reliable, you should never interfere with the content of the programme. There is something called curatorial integrity that we, as a business, have no other business than to wholeheartedly honour.

The term ‘culture’, in Germany, was defined by Immanuel Kant, and it was all about defining culture as something autonomous. And then culture was raped in Nazi Germany. I think there’s an obligation in regard to it, an institutional obligation – not for companies to engage in the arts, no company has to do that ever or is bound by law to do so – to keep that creative freedom going. I do think that’s also a link along the same lines as techne: absolute creative freedom is also an integral part of what our designers and what our engineers do. If they couldn’t try and advance the future of the automobile and individual mobility, they would not thrive.

AR Do you trust the museums and juries you work with so completely?

TG Yes, and sometimes we have to live with their decisions. Because you don’t want to interfere with what it is that they do best. Certainly you have your network, your own know-how – we’ve been collaborating in the arts for over 40 years. We have a network the world over which functions like a seismographic link, letting us know where things are happening which might be worthwhile throwing our weight behind. There are people we can call, there’s great advice that we’re getting, but at the same time, whoever we collaborate with, they get to decide. It should go without saying. In some way or another, though, you also create a buffer. The next BMW art car artist will be chosen, just like Olafur Eliasson was, by an international jury of curators.

AR Just curators? No car people?

TG I decided to convene a jury for the next BMW Art Car which is just curators and museum directors. Ar Why? tG We are the car people, we provide the car.

AR Yes, but they could be on the jury, right?

TG No, I have a very clear sense in regard to that. We provide the race car, we tell the jury, they don’t get to pick the race car, the artist doesn’t get to pick the race car. We know which cars will be running when and in what race, whether it’s the M6 race car, or the Z4 Gt3, or the M3 Gt4, as it was for Jeff Koons. We get to decide on the car. That is what we do, that is our expertise; they get to decide on the artist.

Do you know how much it hurts within the company if the first thing that Olafur Eliasson does if he gets the h2r – the solely hydrogen-powered car, with which BMW could prove that hydrogen could be used as an alternative to fossil fuels; the pride of the engineers and the designers; the car with which we set all the records in terms of speed and endurance – is to rip out all the BMW logos and start taking the parts of its body apart? That is part of the discussion that is going on. Are people happy about that within the company? Some probably are not, but is that the issue at stake? No.

AR If he put Mercedes logos all over it, what would happen then?

TG If you want to test your limits like this, why not? We would think that an artist who takes on the challenge of creating the Art Car example, something that already has an amazing trajectory with Stella, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Koons, Holzer, Mahlangu, Hockney and so forth, would not really want to mess this up. There’s trust. Or a sense of responsibility. I would think if you take on such a task, you don’t do it to stick two fingers up at BMW. Another example: we decided early on to throw our weight behind the Kochi-Muziris Biennale initiative, way before it got off the ground, because we’re also very much aware that BMW as a brand, and what the brand is being associated with, can be a big draw for other sponsors. It helps when we back a project early on, because then others feel safer to go into uncharted territory with us as well.

AR What exactly does BMW get out of the cultural engagement? Pretend I’m about to shut you down and you have to justify its existence…

TG Look, if there were a vote within the company for the ordering of 2,000,000 better or more secure screws for some sort of car model or for BMW’s cultural engagement, my hand would go up for the screws. I work for BMW. These screws are important, but we also need to make sure that this vote will never happen. We can try to find euphemisms for the word ‘crisis’, but when the crisis, or the big challenges, or the problems for the car industry came in full force in 2008, 2009, I never got as many calls as I did then from the media asking, ‘When will you now cut down your budget? What contracts will you not fulfil?’ Once you have created the thread within culture and you want to be seen as a responsible partner, it’s important that you are with them, that they have the security of mind to know that you stick with them no matter what kind of rollercoaster ride your stock might be involved in. Of course, when you’re running deficits and you have to let go of people, I could never really say what is more important. The image and the reputation of the company can only be established long-term. Once you cut loose your cultural engagement, it will take a long time to rebound.

One thing I did want to get across is that anybody with enough money can sponsor a show. Let’s say there’s a museum X and a curator Y who needs Z amount of money, the difference between what he or she needs to fulfil his vision of the show and what he or she is actually getting from private, public, whatever funding, whatever country they’re in. So he or she approaches a lot of companies to get that. If I were just to throw money at that institution, I would be doing something that anyone could do. Our competition could do that. And there is competition. So what do you want to do? We are not sponsors of a show, we are co-initiators of the BMW Guggenheim Lab [a mobile urban thinktank and community centre that travelled to new York, Berlin and Mumbai]. We are not sponsoring concerts by the London Symphony Orchestra, we approach them and ask whether they would consider giving a free concert in Trafalgar Square each year, and it’s called BMW Lso Open Air Classics. Thousands, tens of thousands of people are gathering on the most iconic square on the planet to listen to Valery Gergiev conduct the London Symphony Orchestra for free. And you know what it says on the big posters? It says, ‘Supported by the Mayor of London.’ It doesn’t say BMW, because BMW is within the title, we are co-initiators of this.

AR And why did you choose the LSO?

TG Because it’s one of the finest orchestras on the planet, run by its own musicians. You might not get to choose the programme or the content, but you do get to choose who you collaborate with.

AR Is there a geography to all this? Are there certain areas you’re more interested in for business reasons?

TG Absolutely – let’s just be open and upfront about this. China’s of interest, the United States is of interest, those are the growing markets, so is Europe, so is Germany. The UK is the only country in which BMW, Rolls-Royce and Mini are all being produced, so yes, we’d better do something there. At Rolls-Royce, we recently jumpstarted our very own Arts Programme. We’re also very proud we kicked off BMW Tate Live [a four-year partnership that features a series of innovative live performances and events, including live web broadcast, in-gallery performance, seminars and workshops], another thing where we, you know, sat behind closed doors for over a year to discuss what are the joint interests of BMW and Tate. What can we do for you guys without just throwing money at an exhibition that you would have done anyway?

AR What does BMW get out of all this?

TG It would be futile to find out how many cars we sold for this, it would be like, as we say in German, nailing a pudding to the wall – it doesn’t hold up. I can tell you that the 7-series driver is three-quarters more interested in culture, according to market research, than the average person on the street. At the same time, other companies have ceased to do anything within culture, and their stock hasn’t gone downhill. We understand that it’s also about returning something to society, and doing something that we are proud of having been doing for so long.

AR You mention that there is a certain level of institution or organisation you support. Do you think you could be more grassroots?

TG We could be interested in art education programmes, but that also has not only to do with art or cultural engagement but with societal engagement. It might very well be that you go into schools that are in a more rugged area of town, where you are just doing something, that wouldn’t be cultural but societal engagement. You need what we call ‘lighthouses’ internationally, you need Tate, the Guggenheim, the National Gallery. This also holds true for the State Opera in Berlin, the Lso in London and so forth, and other institutions the world over, but everything that we do has to be scalable.

We want to help the dealer also engage in culture, where you can do a lot of things right with €10,000, you can do a lot of things wrong with €100,000. Sometimes it’s harder to engage with culture than with sports

BMW’s cultural engagement is run out of headquarters, you’ve only got that at headquarters, where you set the coordinates, the strategies, for worldwide cultural engagement. What do I know about Kuala Lumpur? Yes, I can call a few people, but the dealer there should also know. We want to help the dealer also engage in culture, where you can do a lot of things right with €10,000, you can do a lot of things wrong with €100,000. Sometimes it’s harder to engage with culture than with sports. In sports it’s rather clear-cut, you know how long your logo emblazoned on a T-shirt will be held in front of a camera for what amount of money.

AR Do you have to keep justifying what you do internally? Do people say, “Thomas, we could have had a much better racing team if you weren’t wasting all this money”?

TG Well, I’d say that when BMW discontinued Formula One, culture was the big winner, because some of the budget was channelled into culture, which I think was the right decision. I wouldn’t say I have to justify myself, but look, this is a successful business enterprise on an international level, and it is in competition, and there’s also a competition within it. The competition is about who has the best things to offer within the company for whatever it is that we want to achieve, or in this case for the reputation of the company. So while there’s an understanding of why we’re engaged in culture, every year you fight for your budget. If those responsible for cultural partnerships sat still, there would be no more budget, we wouldn’t renew a single contract. This would fall through the cracks. In total, these are not the biggest numbers when it comes to what is being spent to position brands. There is competition with sports, with societal engagement. You’ve got to make that case within the company, convince people, have your alliances. That’s what makes my work interesting.

AR Do you think that culture really attracts enough people to be worth investing in?

TG Five-point-four million people at the Tate last year alone. Six million people at the Met every year. In Germany two years ago, you had 120 million visitors to museums set against 12 million visitors to stadiums for first and second division soccer teams, so that’s ten times more. I was reading in The Economist last December that more people visited museums in America than they did all the ballparks and amusement parks combined. So yes, of course sports are also being watched on television, but then when you look at 45 million visitors each year going to the Met online, six million visitors to the building, there is something to be said for culture. Also, when it comes to gross domestic product, the cultural industry – and not only in Germany – is right between the chemical industry and the car industry, around 2.3 percent. It’s no secret that the creative class in a postindustrial society drives economic growth.

AR Only in very developed countries.

TG In developed countries in which we do business.

AR But that’s not your future. Surely it’s in emerging markets…

TG You’ve got to be on your feet all the time. I mean, you can’t put your money down on one country or on a conglomeration of countries. You’re very much looking into what is happening in the BRIC countries, for example. These are the most rapid in development sometimes, and you’ve got to be there before anybody else. The people there, once a certain level of wealth sets in, are eager to share, or to showcase that wealth, or to finally get from A to B by their own choosing, and that’s where BMW comes in as an aspirational brand.

AR Do you never worry that the culture institutions you’re supporting need your support because they’re cultural institutions people don’t want?

TG No, I don’t think so. I also don’t want to water down through my commitment what those cultural institutions are there for. I have a more subjective but much more positive view of how much arts matter. It’s now the spectator as contributor, it’s no longer about the authoritative canon. Yet if we were to put on the wall what everybody wants, nothing that you see in museums today would be hanging on the wall, so there needs to be knowledge, there needs to be professionalism. You wouldn’t let somebody who hasn’t studied brain surgery perform on your brain if you had – God forbid – a tumour. So there needs to be authority, yet in a very open, informed way that also embraces many walks of life that haven’t been embraced before. I think that the museum is set up perfectly, much more so than many other institutions, to answer the questions people have today.

AR Do you think it’s very similar to BMW’s core business? The manufacturing of desire…

TG Museums should operate without the tyranny of the bottom line. BMW exists because BMWs are bought. Museums don’t need to pass that test. I happen to believe in the €9 billion that Germany pours into the arts on a local, federal and state level every year. That is a gift for humankind. I believe in the philanthropy of the United States and the institutions supported there. I believe in the free-of-charge major museums in London and so forth.

AR You’re a Duchamp expert. Why doesn’t BMW just buy lots of Duchamps and have a Duchamp museum?

TG Because it’s very, very essential once you start working that you don’t have your personal affinities overlap with the strategic positioning of the company that you work for. 

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue.