BMW's no strings attached prize - Interview with Thomas Girst

  Photo: Thomas Girst ©BMW AG

Photo: Thomas Girst ©BMW AG

Thomas Girst has served as the Head of Cultural Engagement at the BMW Group, Munich since 2003 and was awarded the "European Cultural Manager of the Year" in 2016. He has authored and edited numerous works on art and literature.  His latest book "Management of Arts and Culture: a Global Guidebook“, will be published by Thames and Hudson in 2019. 

BMW has been inviting artists since 1975 to create its Art Cars. What were the brand's motivations in starting the Art Journey in 2015?  

We asked ourselves if we could make a difference with cultural engagement and not add to the “bling bling” and exuberance of the 60 billion dollar art market. BMW has been a partner of the arts for half a century - without any vested interest in the field or our own corporate art collection. For the Art Journey, it would have been easy to give away an award with prize money attached. Anyone can do that and it is not necessarily the best thing to further an artist’s career. As a long-term partner of the Prize of the National Gallery in Berlin we wholeheartedly embraced the director Udo Kittelmann’s idea to do away with the award money and instead honor the emerging artist with a solo show and catalogue. Adapting this philosophy for the Art Journey, we provide the artist with time and money to create a mobile studio and go where she wants. There are no strings attached and no limitations (except for interstellar and submarine travel below 1,000 meters). We are a company associated with mobility so the idea of a road trip made complete sense.


The Art Journey takes cues from the art world formats of a juried prize, a residency (albeit a mobile one), and publications.  Why did the company select these structures to implement this project?


Publishing books alongside their travels might not be worthwhile in terms of PR, but it is to remind everyone that there is meaning and intelligence in art, far beyond social media. Scholarship remains important to the Art Journey, which is represented by our jury.  From Richard Armstrong to Massimiliano Gioni to Gabi Ngcobo, Susanne Pfeffer, Claire Hsu and Victoria Noorthoorn, the Art Basel selection committee is a great one. And as for the artists, look at Samson Young, the first recipient, who went on to represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennial and participated in Documenta 14. Or Abigail Reynolds, who researched lost and destroyed libraries along the Silk Road. Or Max Hooper Schneider who is exploring coral reefs across the planet. I am in absolute awe of the depth and earnestness of their endeavors.

  BMW Art Journey Winner Abigail Reynolds has begun the first leg of her journey along the Silk Road, starting in her hometown Cornwall (UK). 

BMW Art Journey Winner Abigail Reynolds has begun the first leg of her journey along the Silk Road, starting in her hometown Cornwall (UK). 

What advice would you have for brands that aspire to the same level of cultural engagement that BMW has championed over the years?

Do something meaningful. Take your time. Do it over the long term. Engage in a true, transparent dialogue with your partners. Always honor the creative freedom of artists and the curatorial integrity of the institutions you collaborate with. Study what the best are doing and learn by reading and talking to experts in the chosen field. Don’t look at what you do as a mere transaction of funds but an interaction of ideas, networks and know-how. Contribute not to distractions but to what is beautiful in human achievement. Have a crystal clear strategy in place.  Don’t react to inquiries, but proactively contact collaborators and partners. Perseverance is key, and knowledge is something that takes an effort to attain. Ask yourself: If your brand were a person, a persona, a character: what would her attitude be towards culture, as a corporate citizen? How do you connect that in an authentic way with your core business? We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, and every future has a past, so know where you come from and act upon it responsibly.