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Q&A with Thomas Girst, Global Head of Cultural Engagement at the BMW Group

Art Dubai is delighted to welcome BMW as a first-time partner for its upcoming edition, and spoke to Dr. Thomas Girst, who has led BMW’s impressive record of international cultural engagement since 2003.

Through our conversation, Dr. Girst shared insightful thoughts on his appreciation of art, supporting regional cultural events, and what he’s looking forward to at Art Dubai this March.

1. As a top representative of BMW, one of the world’s reputable automobile companies, you surprisingly have an educational background in art history. How did you develop such a strong appreciation for the arts?

Through my godmother whose library opened up the world to me. Though I did socialize, most of what I learned I learned through books, communicating with great minds throughout the centuries. I remember begging my mother to buy opulent books on Dalí for me at the age of 13 and travelling the Netherlands by myself when I was 16 to see every Vermeer in every museum there.

2. Are you personally engaged in collecting art?

I am, though I do not consider myself a collector. Just because people are taking showers they are not connected with one another as collectors seem to be. Collecting is a private affair. I will share that much: When I was twenty, I saved all the money I could as a student doing odd jobs on the side to buy Marcel Duchamp’s urinal  “Fountain” etching of 1963 from Ronny van de Velde in Antwerp. My girlfriend at the time was studying fashion design there, and every time I came by I brought a little money with me for Ronny. I had a copy of the etching onto which I drew a grid, crossing out little squares for every 100 Deutsche Marks I had delivered. Once all squares were marked, I picked up my artwork. It is now displayed in our restroom – where it should be!

3. As innovative products of craftsmanship, would you say that there is a relationship between automobiles and art?

There certainly is! Hundreds of them in fact, we don’t even have to make this up. Since the inception of the automobile, artists have been fascinated with mobility and cars and speed. Think only of the Futurist manifesto of 1909, published on the front page of “Le Figaro”, celebrating the car as the sculpture of modern times. In the pre-Socratic era, there was but one single word for great achievements in the arts as well as in technological innovations: techné. There is a common history, a shared thread and a great trajectory in terms of relating automobiles to art.

4. For almost five decades, BMW Group has pioneered an eventful history in cultural engagement, starting in Europe and branching internationally. How and why did this essential initiative begin?

We consider ourselves a cultured brand. We want to return something to the society we do successful business in. No strings attached. We are corporate citizens. We certainly want to make a difference in leading arts engagement from the business side. With hundreds of projects worldwide and our commitment in the past half century, we bring a vast network and lots of know-how to the table that our partners can tap into anytime. We never mess with content, which is important to us. That is for the partners to decide, from major museums to concert halls and opera houses.

5. You are the Head of Cultural Engagement at BMW Group, which will be sponsoring the 2018 edition of Art Dubai for the first time. Could you explain your role in supporting cultural events in the region?

Sponsorship is about a monetary transaction, yet we love to think of ourselves more as partners as what we engage in is more of an interaction. The UAE has evolved as a great market. Look at all the amazing projects and cultural scenes coming into being. I am aware of the competition and the city marketing involved in all of this. If it benefits the arts: all for the better! Culture must take roots in order to achieve longevity. It is not to be taken lightly. We want to contribute to this and really do something meaningful. Art Dubai for us is to explore and to discover. We are meant to stay!

6. What motivated BMW to sponsor this year’s edition of the fair? Was there a certain element that made Art Dubai stand out?

Most things do not happen in a flash. Be assured that we have been engaged in talks with Art Dubai for quite some time while evaluating manifold possibilities of cultural engagement in the region. The time just felt right in 2018. We have enormous respect for the fair’s organizers and participants to pull off Art Dubai, to improve, to be bold and audacious, to believe in this great opportunity and to develop it with us as a partner. We come along with great expertise, having been involved with what we call A-list art fairs around the globe for over a decade now.

7. What are your thoughts on the region’s booming art scene and market, which are evidenced by the opening of museums and the promising growth of a competitive, contemporary art scene?

Art is not a marketing tool or at least should not be. Do not get carried away by megalomania and make sure your projects are deeply rooted in the region, its heritage, furthering young artists on the ground, reaching out, broadening the audience, creating an infrastructure – instead of creating a moveable feast of superstars flying in and out not even leaving a fleeting footprint in the sand. Never limit the freedom of the arts, never cease to censorship.

8. At the fair, you will be hosting an exciting talk ‘Powerplay: Gallerist, Collector, Artist – Who is the most powerful?’, taking place on 23 March. What can visitors expect from this conversation?

Talking heads are apt to be boring. So if all goes well, please expect some disagreement among the panelists, some critical thinking, some knowledge you will still ponder over once the fair has closed. That would be the aim to strive for! But we may fail at that – which could also be nice to take in. I just don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver. Keep in mind that the audience is vital: so bring your friends and spread the word, and most importantly, get engaged: feel free to ask questions!

9. Finally, as you will be visiting the fair, what are you looking forward to?

I understand that fairs are a platform for people to meet, for exchange and most of all for looking at art. The most important thing is to pace yourself, to not feel rushed. To take your time. Fairs are not the most ideal way to be able to look at art, you are tempted to take it all in – which is a futile undertaking. I look forward to walking by myself, very slowly through the fair and engage in no more than a handful of artworks that speak to me.

Talks and Events

Talk: Powerplay – Gallerist, Collector, Curator, Artist- Who is the most influential? (By invitation only)

Friday, March 23


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