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Prof. Dr. Thomas Girst, Global Head of Cultural Engagement BMW Group, on the debut of BMW’s Art Car Project (est. 1975) in Dubai and the company’s long-term engagement with art

Art Dubai’s exclusive car partner, BMW Group Middle East brings one of its BMW Art Cars to the Middle East for the very first time. The 1989 BMW M3 Group A racing version, created by Ken Done, one of the most significant painters on the Australian continent, will be exhibited at Art Dubai.  Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Ken Done Art Car is painted in the artist’s signature lively colours and brush strokes to reflect the vitality of his homeland.


Alongside the car is an exhibition in miniature form of all Art Car commissions allowing guests to discover the heritage and history of the BMW Art Car project which, for over 40 years, has involved renowned artists including Alexander Calder, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

Ahead of the fair, Prof. Dr. Thomas Girst, Global Head of Cultural Engagement BMW Group, talked to Art Dubai about the significance of the Art Car Project’s debut in Dubai, hinting at an Art Car world tour and the car company’s continuing patronage of the arts:

Prof. Dr. Thomas Girst, Global Head of Cultural Engagement BMW Group, Potrait Courtesy of BMW

This is the first time BMW’s Art Car project will be shown in the Middle East. How significant is that for the region and for the project?

Let’s just say that we consider Ken Done’s BMW art car a goodwill ambassador to the region as part of our commitment to Art Dubai. We not only want to contribute a great shuttle experience but also like to add to the narrative by bringing actual content along when it comes to contemporary art. That said, it may be time very soon to send the greatest examples of our BMW art cars on a world tour around the globe. Whenever that may happen, we will be sure to look towards the Middle East for many venues and opportunities of engagement in this regard.


Why was the design by Ken Done chosen to be exhibited in Dubai?

In 2019, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Ken Done’s contribution to the art car series. Together with the aboriginal artist Michael Jagamara Nelson who also turned an M3 into an Art Car that same year, Done’s colourful automobile is one of two in the series originating from the Australian continent. Just look at Done’s car! He showcases his beloved homeland, blending beauty and speed by focusing on the colors of parrot fish and parrots. They shoot through the water and sky the way a car does speed on the highway or the racetrack. Done is an artist as well as a graphic designer. Hot colours are where the engine is, cooler colours are where the air flows towards the rear. The idea was to have the car look as if it flies, with the lines and dots all moving in harmony so as if the automobile was in motion even when standing still. It is this creative achievement which we thought would make a great addition from our side to the amazing and incredible showcase of contemporary art that is Art Dubai.

Ken Done, Art Car, 1989, BMW M3Group A Racing Version, Courtesy of BMW

With so many famous artists having painted the cars over the decades, what does this say about BMW’s engagement with the world of contemporary art?

We are very proud of the legacy of the BMW Art Cars. Look, we are a car company, not a cultural institution. It is all the more surprising that the art car series gathers such amazing artists within its ranks. As for our engagement within contemporary art, we have established a great network and great know-how throughout the decades. Let’s say that our partnerships with international art fairs are at the commercial end of what we do within the arts, there’s also corporate citizenship which is of importance. What is your attitude, how do you behave as a company. What do you return to society that you do successful business in?

I believe we have established great initiatives far and beyond the BMW Art Cars. Opera for all has tens of thousands of people enjoy music for free from Moscow and Berlin to Berlin and London. BMW Art Journey sends artists around the world so they can create art outside of the confines of their studio. An art / tech grant for young artists together with the Garage museum in Moscow or the BMW Frieze Works program engages creative minds with our designers and engineers who end up working jointly together. BMW Tate Live brings performance art to the forefront of recognition. And our partnerships with biennials such as the Berlin Biennial by Gabi Ngcobo or the recent installment of the Kochi Muziris Biennial by Anita Dube are awe-inspiring examples of the importance and the role of art today. All this is just the tip of the iceberg and we are just delighted to be part of this and be able to contribute to a better and more civic world!


At one point, these art cars were used and raced. Are they still working vehicles or are they considered to be works of art in their own right?

That is one great question! To tell you the truth, the BMW Art Cars only compete once in motorsports, they have to prove themselves and earn their spurs on the racetrack. Beyond that, the museum is their new home. When Andy Warhol’s M1 art car was allowed to race again – a decision made by members of the board of the BMW Group – my heart stood almost still. It was an honorary race, with the great artist Frank Stella beyond the wheel who himself had created an art car in 1976. Nevertheless, it was as much fun as it was risky, considering that many consider the M1 by Warhol to be the most expensive car of humankind.

BMW has partnered with Art Dubai since 2018 and this is evidence of the impact the brand will have on the fair and the visitors. What other activities are planned for the future?

The BMW Group has been a long-term partner of the arts for half a century now with hundreds of cooperations around the world. As for the Middle East, with our initiative BMW Contemporary, we also showcase artists and collectors in the region, many of which are also featured in our BMW Art Guide, now in its fifth edition. We first and foremost would like to offer something meaningful in what it is that we do. Beauty is something to behold and protect, especially when ugliness spreads at an alarming rate. As we position ourselves from a car company to a mobility provider towards a tech company, any future endeavors within the arts will certainly tie in that aspect as well. We are interested in the forefront, the avant-garde of what artists are doing today and play our part in making it possible. Curiosity is a great character trait and we love to be kept on our toes.

Prof Dr. Thomas Girst, with John Baldessari (artist of BMW Art Car 19), Oxnard 2016, Photo Credits: Brett Cody Rogers, Courtesy of BMW

And what’s next for the Art Car project?

We just had the great Chinese artist Cao Fei create an amazing BMW Art Car, the youngest artist ever in the series and only the third female to turn a race car into a work of art. She really took the art car collection into the third millennium by involving AR, VR, AI, a film, an app, flying and autonomous cars. Of course we will continue beyond that. The art car series is future proof and I am sure we will be able to make some new announcements within the next few years. The process starts with an international jury of renowned museum directors sitting around a table in some hotel room and deciding on who the next artist should be. Something to look forward to for sure!

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