Why brand should invest in art and creative partnerships

Leelee Chan is the ninth BMW Art Journey winner

As head of BMW’s cultural engagement, Thomas Girst is deeply passionate about the arts. His role at the brand is to source artists and institutions that chime with his company’s ethos – or at least express elements that are relevant to BMW. In the past this has included exploring virtual and augmented reality, assessing the power of technology to seduce, and finding commonality between cultures by humanising migration – pretty heavy topics for a car company to take on.

The most recent partnership is addressing our fragile earth and our connection to it. Just announced as the winner of the BMW Art Journey with Art Basel, artist Leelee Chan will set out to examine how ancient materials and their future substitutes from the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology inform our debate around ecological and cultural sustainability.

Artwork by Leelee Chan, the ninth BMW Art Journey winner

BMW also directly sponsors art galleries, musical orchestras, and festivals to include Tate Modern, Art Basel, Frieze Art, Paris Photo, Art D’Égypte, London Symphony Orchestra – to name a few. Many of these cultural spaces rely on such patronage. And with the arts suffering greatly due to the current pandemic and a likely global recession that will follow, it is vital for governments and corporations to continue their support. With this in mind, Spinach consultant Nargess Banks caught up with Thomas Girst to gauge his thoughts on how best industries and businesses can align with the arts to help boost the creative industries and their own brands.

Why engage with the arts? After all, there is no direct transactional profit for the company in that the investment doesn’t translate to direct car sales.

We would always like to find ourselves on the side where we are creating things that really matter and where we can make a difference. And while it is about the image of the brand and the reputation, it is also about corporate citizenship. It would be obscene to measure this with car sales. With our cultural engagement, we want to open up to a much broader audience.

The late LA artist John Baldessari translating his minimalism to the #19 BMW art car

There has always been a mutually seductive rapport between art and money, and BMW isn’t alone to tap into the art world. Yet, not all sponsorships and patronages feel genuine. What would be your advice on the correct way to engage with the arts?

There isn’t a manual on corporate cultural management – global guidance for companies to get involved in the arts. You need to define the corners in which you can engage and find some guidelines, so it isn’t throwing money at an institution and them singing your song. The strategy must be based on your company’s values. You cannot fake authenticity. It needs to be something meaningful.

Is this the BMW way?

Yes, this is what I’m after. It has to be a sustainable cultural engagement. Don’t expect too much in the early years. These are long-term investments. And we always make sure the artists we collaborate with are paid for their work as we consider this part of the partnership.

The BMW Art Car #18 by Chinese multimedia artist Cao Fei explores AR and VR

With live shows suspended under the pandemic, there appears to be an influx of cultural activities happening in the digital sphere. Galleries and organizations have rapidly adapted their systems to provide virtual showrooms and live-streamed discussions with artists. Art is physically reaching a wider group than ever before. How will this impact on the artists?

There is the notion that everything that happens on social media and online is cost-free. Of course, artists are jumping onto the platform now more than ever, to get their work out and create more visibility. They are making use of technology. But what it does is make that challenge for artists even tougher because people don’t expect to pay for anything when they see a free concert, a free reading, a free installation that one can see online.

Would you agree that there’s the danger that many corporations who have financially lost out due to the crisis, will drop their arts funding? After all, so many smaller art galleries and cultural institutions tend to rely on such grants.

Yes, absolutely. Institutions will suffer if there is less corporate involvement in the arts.

Zac Langdon-Pole - detail of "Assimilation Study", 2017 © Dirk Pauwels

Like so many other epic historical moments, this current global crisis offers the spur we need to imagine a new world order – rethink our priorities. With the menace of death comes a richer focus on the minutes and the moments of life.

Many have been harmed, have lost loved ones, and have lost their businesses. I’d love for people to take what offers meaning in those few months, be it walking in the park, taking time to speak with friends, and save these memories and take them into the future and make them part of who they are.

And how do you see the art world evolving post-pandemic?

We may move away from the champagne clinking of it to more education-based engagements. Maybe we will see a shift towards education.

There is much discussion that the creative industries, the creative class, may suffer the most following the world economic depression that is likely to follow the pandemic.


BMW is one of the sponsors of the annual Paris Photo

I’ve been concerned that with the pandemic, countries are breaking down into nation-states. But culture is about crossing boundaries. I’m an optimist by nature though. For the past hundreds and thousands of years, art has been created under all circumstances, under all kinds of regimes and with no budget. Whatever shape the arts take, it will always be there. Fewer shows will certainly hurt the galleries and artists. And we won’t be able to experience the beauty of art. But we will get through this.

And how has the pandemic and the lockdown impacted on you?

I think let’s take this moment as inspiration and think and act a little bolder. Why say we’ll go back to normal when so much bothered many of us in that ‘normal’. If we look at this episode as a rupture, then it can turn us into better human beings – into more reasonable and sustainable people who treat one another and this planet with more empathy.

Images from top: Leelee Chan, BMW Art Journey winner and her artwork © Leelee Chan; the late artist John Baldessari translating his minimalism to the #19 BMW art car, The BMW Art Car #18 by Chinese multimedia artist Cao Fei explores AR and VR © BMW; Zac Langdon-Pole – detail of “Assimilation Study”, 2017 © Dirk Pauwels; Emeric Lhuisset’s ‘L’autre rive’ for Paris Photo 2019 concludes with a series of fading blue renderings through cyanotype to express the disappearance of civilizations © Emeric Lhuisset.

Spinach Branding is a specialist branding agency based in London. We work with established businesses and start-ups around the world to build and refine their brands. See how we work and get in touch to discuss your brand.

Emeric Lhuisset's ‘L'autre rive’ for Paris Photo 2019 concludes with a series of fading blue renderings through cyanotype to show the disappearance of civilizations © Emeric Lhuisset
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