Dr. Thomas Girst, head of BMW International Cultural Engagement, has a passion for art, with enough expertise, experience and creativity to fuel a global brand. He is also an author, journalist, art historian and professor. Leading BMW’s cultural group since 2003, he initiates global partnerships that connect artists with the brand’s history, values, and marketing strategy. For over 40 years, with over 100 projects worldwide, BMW Group’s cultural commitment has been an essential part of its corporate communications and cultural engagement, reaching new heights under Dr. Girst’s helm. Valuing freedom of creative potential in art and within a successful business enterprise, Girst has deepened the company’s commitment to modern and contemporary art, jazz and classical music as well as architecture and design.
Dr. Girst’s impressive background includes being honored with the “European Cultural Manager of the Year” award and serving as cultural correspondent and columnist for the German media outlet Tageszeitung (TAZ), “The Truth” New York from 1995 and 2003 . As an editor and journalist writing about literature and business, Girst has published widely within international newspapers, magazines, catalogues and academic journals, including Tate Modern, Science Ltd., Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum of Design, The Andy Warhol Foundation, Museum for Applied Arts Cologne, Art in America, Frieze, Sotheby’s, The Art Newspaper, and many more. He has published 7 acclaimed books on subjects including artist Marcel Duchamp, the Japanese Internment, the Postwar and Contemporary American Art, and the art world.
Grace Cho, Founder and CEO Artrepreneur, an online platform that helps creatives learn the business of art, interviewed Dr. Thomas Girst by phone from Berlin.
Grace Cho [00:00:07] Hello, and welcome to Artrepreneur Podcast. My name is Grace. I’m the founder and CEO of Artrepreneur, a robust online platform that helps creatives succeed.
Grace Cho [00:00:16] BMW Cultural Group has been at the forefront of initiating creative partnerships that connect artists with the brand’s history, values and marketing strategy for over 40 years, with over 100 projects worldwide. The BMW cultural commitment has been an essential part of its corporate communications and cultural engagement. At the helm of this enormous endeavor is our guest today, Dr. Thomas Girst, who has been the head of BMW Group International Cultural Engagement in Munich since 2003. Dr. Girst, you’re joining us from Berlin today. Welcome to Artrepreneur. It is such a thrill and honor to have you with us today.
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:00:56] Thank you.
Grace Cho [00:00:59] Well, tell me about your career and how you came to your current position at BMW Group.
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:01:05] I studied American Studies and Art History, and also German Literature at the University of Hamburg, and then I got a scholarship to study at NYU. So, I came there in 1995 in my early to mid 20s. When you’re there for one year on a scholarship for NYU, of course you want to stay there, and I did and I could. I started to work at a gallery on the Upper East Side in Germany. Before I started studying at high school, I founded a school newspaper. I also created an international literary journal called Outside of the Element, which was just a cardboard box with loose sheets of paper in it with many literatures from across the world that we all had translated and we sold at cost price. We called this the non-profit art movement with no advertisement within this literary journal that came out pretty much every half a year. I wrote manifestos against any infiltration of business into the arts. So, I now have a job doing, you know, working for the BMW Group, but it’s a journey, as you said at the very beginning, and so it’s all these things. I always thought, Thomas, when is all of this coming together, all this stuff that you’re doing, your interest in arts and literature? I picked up a job after the gallery stint with the Stephen J. Gould, the great, late Harvard professor and paleontologist who had set something up in his apartment in SoHo called Art Science Research Laboratory, looking at the connection between art and science. People were lining up to listen to his lectures and join his classes if they were lucky enough at Harvard. It was unforgettable to be in the presence, I must say, of real genius. He passed away. You know, I had been working there as a research manager after 9/11 happened, New York, as you know changed, and I was considering going back to Germany after eight years in New York City. And so I just applied to so many different companies and I tell that to young people today that ask me about their career moves. I say, look, everybody wants somebody to come and say oh we want you, but you know you really have to – in Germany we say to polish the doorknobs – meaning that you must do these things yourself, and just apply or speak to as many people as possible. And I just applied to BMW and knew about what they were doing in the arts which wasn’t much at the time, and they liked that somebody from New York would think of them and they looked at my background which included journalism, so being part of corporate communications. Of course, they thought of that as an asset when you bring your own network and know-how to the table, and the person that was in charge and had been doing that for a decade was about to leave. So, I applied at the right time.
Grace Cho [00:03:43] You give great advice. A lot of artists live in their own heads and they don’t bother to make that network, or call, and make the outreach. What do you do as the head of Global Arts and Culture?
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:03:56] You know you must be intrinsically motivated and I think part of me is to intrinsically motivate pretty much everyone around me. And to have a great sense of responsibility, and to be happy to make decisions, to hold yourself up to a very high standard. I know when the workload was so much at BMW I called up my mother and she said, “Sometimes I think you could only do 50 percent of what you do and nobody would notice.” And I thought, “Mom! Never!” And then I realized a few years later that probably people wouldn’t; I would be the only person realizing that. But that’s not the way I roll. So, I think it’s the standard that you hold yourself up to yourself that tells you to really give 100 percent. And I want to continue to do so. I always think that if you have enough to eat, if you haven’t lost a loved one, that if you’re not ailing from some disease then you somehow should always come to the fringes of what you can possibly be, because that’s where it starts to get interesting. To enter these torrid territories within yourself that you sometimes don’t even know exist because you push harder. I think there’s so much benefit from that because then things become an adventure. And the job really entails that you honor your partnerships with artists, cultural institutions, opera houses, museums, around the world and everybody needs to be taken care of, to feel that they are special, that you have a special relationship with them. You also must talk to the media. You have to work strategically within the company to make sure that the budget is there. It’s a team effort. You work with marketing. You work with those that are in design, and you work with engineers to not just do what many companies do, and that is just mere sponsoring, just a monetary transaction from A to B, but to turn what is considered sponsoring into a true partnership.
Grace Cho [00:05:47] Outstanding. So how has BMW Group come to embrace those philosophies? How do you get that from BMW Group and what’s been your role in making sure that it is done?
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:06:02] I think first with having been engaged in the arts for so long, there also comes a sense of responsibility with it, to not sell the arts short or to not use or manipulate the arts in any shape or form. So, I think you need to really find another understanding in terms of why it is that you are partnering with the arts. A lot of it has to do with being a corporate citizen. What do you return to the society that you do successful business in? That doesn’t mean you jump from event to event and from a social media outreach to social media outreach, but that you’re really there in the long term to give institutions the security to plan ahead. At the same time, of course you want to hold them up to the greater standards and renew a contract every three years, for example, so that you also can make things better. So, it is about what you return to society. That you somehow change the way that people look at companies. It’s no longer only about the product. It’s no longer only about their stocks, but it’s about how you behave. The best definition that I ever heard of a brand, is that a brand is a piece of real estate in somebody else’s mind. So, if there was a piece of real estate for BMW in somebody else’s mind. So, you have to build that carefully, and knowing that a lot of those people that are potential customers that are interested in the arts, also could be interested in a BMW. This is where you want to go. You want to not only lure them into the dealerships, you want to go where they are. It would be negligent to also think about who’s going to buy how many cars. We hosted a free concert on Trafalgar Square with tens of thousands of people listening. It has to be both. When it comes to your engagement, certainly cater to potential customers but also return something to society, and I think that is that mix that we certainly aim to stand for it within the arts.
Grace Cho [00:08:00] I love that connection of corporate social responsibility with the brand, and with the company and ultimately the brand benefits.
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:08:10] It’s true. You know, cars go at the same speed limits. They probably need the same amount of gas, or batteries, and so forth. So how do you differentiate besides design brands from each other?
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:08:25] It is about the image and the reputation that you also try to build when you are engaged in culture, and because we’ve been at it for so long, I think we can also lead that field in a way, now that digitalization is so important, that car companies turn into tech companies. We become digital partners of opera houses, it’s not only about streaming videos of concerts, but it’s also about the change of perspective that can come along with it.
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:08:50] We just had a free concert that we hosted in Berlin, with 40000 people on a big square in the middle of Berlin. We had mass with Daniel Barenboim who’s a renowned conductor, and we convinced him to put something called a “parrot cam” on his shoulder. So that was the first time. It hadn’t been done before. You could see from the perspective of a conductor of what it feels like to conduct an entire orchestra. 120 amazing musicians. So, this was great. And people looked at it online and on the big screens that we had on the square, so that is what I’m talking about when I talk of change of perspective – really delving into the possibilities of the digital.
Grace Cho [00:09:31] So, the classic competition between BMW and Mercedes Benz…do you believe that they’re focused on a different kind of campaign versus BMW Group because of your support to arts and culture?
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:09:43] It’s not only Mercedes. There’s Audi, there’s certainly Tesla, there’s all these competitors that we look at and you have to – It’s a fiercely competitive environment. You know, I came in to BMW from the field of humanities and I worked in a gallery and wrote for newspapers, but when it comes to the competition it’s amazing. And I also think that you have such great cars because Mercedes, Audi, BMW are really within a 200-mile radius of each other. I think that’s what makes these cars good. It is the competition. When we look at the field of culture I always think every dollar that is spent on the arts, on culture is great. The field of arts and culture is so huge. When you are competing directly let’s say in some races in motorsports, of course, then you are up against each other. But the field of the arts is so big that you don’t need to choose the same museum, that you don’t need to choose the same area of engagement. Because we’re so strong and arts and culture, or contemporary art in particular that a lot of other brands probably think “BMW is there so let’s rather delve into fashion or let’s rather do something else” and I think it’s great. We don’t need to stand on each other’s feet there.
Grace Cho [00:11:00] So speaking of that can you tell us a little bit more about these specific programs that BMW cultural group is involved in. What’s it like to combine art and cars in terms of curation and in creation of programs with artists?
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:11:16] We don’t want to end up on the bling-bling side of things, but really on the meaningful side of things. It’s not this event of being sort of thing that doesn’t get you anywhere in the long term. Anybody can throw money at artists. Artists need money. We look at the big auction results and we think, “oh wow they’re all wealthy”. And of course, we know that the art industry is a 60-billion-dollar business. But at the end of the day, when you look at what the average artist makes in Germany, it’s no more than ten thousand euros a year. So, when we look at how Gerhardt Victor or Neo Howl if we stick to German examples, they’re part billionaires, but look at the average artists. So, I’m not against artists getting a prize and money awards, but that’s not the way we roll because we think we can help them in the longterm better by doing something else. So we created, together with Art Basel, something called the BMW Art Journey, which doesn’t mean that artists that go on a road trip and have to drive a BMW. They don’t even have to have a driver’s license, but they are chosen by an independent jury that BMW has no say in. Also, it’s always important to me that we keep the whole process transparent and open. So, there is a great jury of museum directors, chief curators, that pick those artists that can then go on a journey of their own making. And desired artists are going on these journeys for research, for creating work, for engaging outside of the studio, and I think it really informs their creativity for many years to come. And the output of what it is that they’re creating, because artists sometimes don’t have the time, and sometimes they don’t have the money, so the Art Journey Project takes care of that and I’m extremely proud of it. Let’s say Simpson Young, the great artist from Hong Kong, who is now represented in Germany, the United States, and certainly in Hong Kong as he was chosen to represent Hong Kong at the Venice Biennial two years ago. He went on the first BMW Art Journey, but just looking at the relationship between sound – and he’s a sound artist – and bells around the globe – bells that are being melted in times of war into cannons and cannons are being melted in times of peace into bells again. So, amazing research that he did and an amazing trip that he could conduct as part of the BMW Art Journey. Now when it comes to cars BMW can take pride in saying that, “oh you know, just because we created the BMW Art Cars we’ve got artists interested in the arts”. No. Ever since the invention of the cars, artists were interested in cars. You have the 1989 Manifesto of the Futurists published on the front page of Le Figaro, where the artists are hailing the car as the new sculpture of modern day. Not only going to the sound of the car, the speed of the car, the scent of the car, the technology of the car, looking into this amazing array of emotions that a car can actually generate in the onlooker, in the viewer, in the driver herself. So, I think the BMW Art Car Series is where we are set apart from, I would say, many others are doing. This wasn’t about PR and marketing people putting their heads together, but the BMW Art Cars came into existence because of the passion of two men for both the arts and for motorsports. When Emily Pooler was in touch with Stella Calder, Warhol, those amazing artists that created the first BMW Art Car, was also in touch with our BMW motorsports director who was in charge of the greatest endurance race on the planet, the 24 hour race. In terms of the BMW fleet that was racing there, they just put their heads together and said, “look why can’t we have an artist paint a car and let’s see what comes of it.” And so, in 1975 Alexander Calder painted a car which then raced at Lemoore. So, I think it’s a great trajectory that we’re now delving into by having Jeff Koons and the great Chinese artist Olafur Eliasson, or John Baldessari create BMW art cars. We have to really be responsible when it comes to going into the future with the series to really also honor the whole thought of these cars having raced and elsewhere.
Grace Cho [00:15:35] I love that story about all of that. So how do you pick the Masters when it comes to these kinds of projects? I know you’ve worked with many of them. So, tell us about a few projects that you are most proud of? The most memorable in the selection process that you go through?
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:15:53] Yeah, as I said like we don’t get involved when it comes to the jury making the decision of what the artist should be the next BMW artist, or what an opera should play, in terms of the music. But when you kick off something, let’s say like the Opera for All in Berlin, you don’t know whether anybody’s going to show up on the square and listen to live music, or look at a big screen where the opera is being performed on the outside. That is happening inside. We’re in the business of creating desire. That’s also part of our core business, so we tried to really lure people into what it is that we are doing, and of course, then these things turn out to be an amazing success, and then the mayors of these cities throw their weight behind it. And when it comes to the archives, Andy Warhol came here to Munich and painted his car within 28 minutes, what is now considered to be the most expensive car on planet Earth. I don’t know exactly how these cars came into being, there was no jury in place then, but now there is a jury and we tell them the model that we would love to have turned into a BMW Art Car. Then they come up with the artists and it’s not only about throwing paint at a car, and us throwing money at an artist and then a design object turns into an art object, but it is about also considering how art develops. You know Cao Fei created a car that is not only the car, but she created an app, she created augmented reality. She created the art around that car and the whole installation and the whole performance. The videos that come along with it all, that is the BMW Art Car experience and she really took it into the 21st century, because she never wielded a brush in her life, and it was just great to entrust her to continue that series and make it really matter when it comes to 21st century technology.
Grace Cho [00:17:37] What I love about these stories is that it is true art without skimping out on it. It’s not just surface. It’s true art. But at the same time, my business side says this is just brilliant business moves. It is just amazing for the brand, it’s great for marketing. It’s got lots of benefits both on the business side, but also staying true to the art. So, brilliant strategy.
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:18:02] Then you mentioned marketing, and marketing, of course, is amazing if done in the right way. It’s also some kind of art. But you also must be sure that to not sell out the art or artists or the art car series. Artists are, and rightly so, they’re critical and thinking twice about going to bed with a major company throwing their weight behind even an amazing initiative like the BMW Art Car. But to get artists like or love like Olaf Elliasson who is basically, as many artists are, kind of their own brand, and they need to know how to negotiate inquiries by companies, because they don’t want to be considered a sellout. So, you have to navigate that in a way that artists feel that they’re completely understood every step of the way. The copyright of those artists’ Art Cars are with the artists, they’re not with us, so we couldn’t use them for any sort of commercial campaign, and I think that is a good thing that gives the whole series more credibility.
Grace Cho [00:19:01] Yes, we talked so much about these famous artists getting involved. Are there other programs that you’re involved in that help emerging or unknown artists?
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:19:12] Yeah. 100 percent. We engage with local academies. We have 32 plants around the globe. So, wherever we have a plant we talk with local academies of arts. Be that in China, be that in Germany or the United States and consider collaborating with them in terms of creating art for our factories, or for our office buildings and so forth. So, we do something for the community, and we don’t just buy art on the auction block that looks good on the walls and gives you a sense of entitlement because it’s so expensive to buy. Other things we do include the prize of the National Gallery and for artists under the age of 40 that live in Germany – they don’t have to be German but they live in Germany – there is a great jury that picks the best artists, and even if you’re on the short list it can help further your career.
Grace Cho [00:20:03] Well, speaking of all those different creative pursuits, you have masterfully woven literature, journalism, history, and art, and professorial work, and all of those wonderful things into this one amazing creative life. Where do you find source of inspiration that continue to energize you the most?
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:20:21] I just have to say it: when you talk about my life it look it sounds really great. And I presume it is. I mean I know it is an amazing privilege, and I know about how great that is for me. They could not be any other coordinates than those of the arts. Yes, I’m working for an amazing company now, and I’ve seen the beauty of running a business for over 100 years, and the shelf life of successful international businesses is only 50 years. You know, when Wall Street opened up shop in the mid 1880s, there’s only one company that’s still being traded publicly from that time. So, companies start off and then they fall again and to see that there is a company that sustains 135,000 employees and their families, it’s pretty amazing. So, I love to be within these coordinates of culture. I read, I go to museums, and I try to really have these amazing moments that are only yours.
Grace Cho [00:21:28] It’s that curiosity, you mentioned. Tell us a little bit about the book.
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:21:33] I think it will be translated into English soon, and it already will be translated into Chinese, Korean, Russian, and Italian. I’m just saying that, not to brag, but I usually try to be a modest person, but I’m just very proud. So, thanks for asking. And it’s going to be a third edition. It’s actually called “All the Time in the World”. You know ugliness is spreading, and we see it right now with pollution, with xenophobia, with nationalism on the rise. The way that you know, me as a German and my horror of the past, I never thought I would witness again. So, I felt a duty to protect and to behold, because beauty is something that human beings are still capable of. I mean we’re all our own worst enemy. It’s very saddening and disturbing to see all these things happening right now on this planet. But humans can also – and that is the title of the book – if they take their time come up with amazing things in art and literature, and math, and biology. There’s 28 chapters about things that can happen when you take your time. Let’s say experiments in physics have been going on for a hundred and fifty years, or mathematical riddles have been solved after two thousand years where every generation was looking into proving a certain hypothesis and they didn’t manage to do that.
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:22:51] And if you allow me, there’s just one little story I want to tell about a little postman. A postman who at the age of 43 years old in France in the late 19th century, stumbled across a stone that he then dug out of the ground and in that bigger stone you saw mythological figures, human beings. So, he took that stone with him. He was a postman walking almost sometimes 20 miles per day through three little hamlets in the village. He took that stone with him to the vegetable garden every day from then on. He picked up pebbles, little stones, he built a wheelbarrow to carry these stones with him and after 33 years in his vegetable garden, he built something that is now called the Ideal Palace or the Palladium Ideal, which is 80 feet long and more than 30 feet high. But out of these pebbles that he picked up every day for 33 years, he built this amazing palace where, you know, the very first stone that he picked up out of the ground is now on an altar on the second floor. There’s such amazing things that can happen when a single man or woman is picking up a single stone somewhere in an acre of barren land in the middle of France. So anybody, you know, if we put our weight behind it can create purity while on this planet. And I would encourage everyone to do that.
Grace Cho [00:24:24] I adore this story. “All the Time in the World” is the name of the book. Well,Tomas I would love for you to come back and speak to us again. It’s been such a thrill and honor to speak with you today. So, thank you so much.
Dr. Thomas Girst [00:24:40] Grace, I can’t tell you how happy I am that you chose me to come up on this program. I really am. I think it’s great and I enjoyed the conversation so much. It’s been such a true honor.
Grace Cho [00:24:40] To all our listeners out there. This is Grace Cho with Artrepreneur. We help creatives succeed.