When in 1972 a young, unknown artist named Gerhard Richter was commissioned to create three large-scale paintings for BMW’s Munich headquarters, a relationship between cars and culture was born. The most recognisable example of this is BMW’s fleet of cars created by artists, which began in 1975 with Alexander Calder and which has seen the likes of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons invited to use a car as a canvas. But the Art Car programme is just one of hundreds of projects where BMW works with artists and is not necessarily illustrative of the brand’s commitment to facilitating culture as opposed to commissioning artworks. “We see ourselves less as a sponsor than a co-initiator, jointly enabling programs whose content, of course, is decided alone by the cultural institution that we work with,” explains Dr. Thomas Girst, BMW’s Head of Cultural Engagement (he explains that job title in the interview that follows).

Focusing on modern and contemporary art, jazz and classical music as well as architecture and design, recent BMW-enabled projects include a series of free live concerts held by the London Symphony Orchestra in Trafalgar Square and free-of-charge ‘Opera for All’ evenings at the State Opera in Berlin. More than the roll call of starchitects – including Zaha Hadid – that have built production facilities for the carmaker, it is projects such as 2011’s BMW Guggenheim Lab that Girst and his team dream up. What do they look for in a cultural proposal? And where is the value for BMW? Thomas Girst explains.

What is your definition of luxury?
Luxury is independent of earthly possessions. It is rather about a state of mind, involving a solitary tale of beauty, aesthetics and excess imagined in as many ways as there are individuals on this planet

An object:
It would be the one thing independent of necessities that you would part with last.

A moment:
It would be one of those moments you cherish above all others and love to bring back to memory, ever changing each time.

A person:
It would be the one person you love and who loves you back, thus making sense of life itself.

A place:
McClure's Beach, north of San Francisco, inside the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve, to see the vast expanse of the ocean, rocks and wind and sun all becoming part of you and you of them, to see things untouched by anything in hundreds of thousands of years.

Your job title is Head of Cultural Engagement – what is that role?
I am responsible worldwide for the cultural engagement of the BMW Group and its brands. For more than forty years, the company has been active in the arts, focusing its activities on modern and contemporary art, design and architecture, to classical music and Jazz. Hundreds of partnerships are taking place around the world each year. We see ourselves less as a sponsor than a co-initiator, jointly enabling programs whose content, of course, is decided alone by the cultural institution that we work with.

You are an expert on Marcel Duchamp. Do you collect art personally? If yes, what guides your collecting and what are your most prized pieces?
I do collect and have been collecting since the age of 19 when I purchased my first artwork, a limited edition etching of Duchamp’s infamous Fountain – which I paid a dealer for in monthly installments over the course of two years until I could pick it up. Yet I would not consider myself a collector in that it is a private and very personal pastime. I surround myself with as many objects that I can in which personal memories and experiences reverberate that make life all the more worth living for.

BMW is well known for its high profile art projects but you also support thousands of smaller cultural initiatives. What do you look for in a cultural proposal?
I would not wish to be the umpteenth recipient of a proposal. Great collaborations take time, such as the BMW Guggenheim Lab or BMW Tate Live. Great discussions ensued for almost two years behind closed doors prior to making an announcement. Don’t just blatantly ask for a budget. Show me that our relationship can be built upon curiosity and mutual esteem. Define what it is that you can bring to the table. And pursue your goals incessantly.

Music is as integral to the cultural vision of BMW as art, architecture and design. What are some of the music projects you are most proud of facilitating?
Anyone could sponsor an opera production of provide the funds for a museum show. But when it comes to music, it is all the more greater – and much more effort is involved – to establish a format long-term. It is us who approached the London Symphony Orchestra to hold free live concerts at Trafalgar Square as pat of a series we proudly call LSO BMW Open Air Classics. It is us who approached Daniel Barenboim and the State Opera in Berlin to establish “Opera for All” there which brings high culture to tens of thousands of people each year, free of charge. As we have in Munich and elsewhere.

You were instrumental in publishing the BMW Art Guide by Independent Collectors, which provides an overview of 173 publicly accessible private collections of contemporary art. It’s the first directory of its kind. Why was it needed? Who is the reader?
The reader could be anyone interested in art. We realized that there was no comprehensive international guide for private collections so here it is! Not a coffee table book but a publication you may take along with you while traveling. It has been a huge success so far. We thought if a tire company is behind the most important guide for the greatest restaurants, BMW as a partner of the arts might just as well delve into the beauty and creativity of publicly accessible private collections.

Apart from the Art Car project, there isn’t a BMW art collection – is this something you would like to build?
No. We want to lead and not catch up. Other companies have been collecting art for decades and they have built great collections. You will see that mostly those companies collect which by definition have a visual void. Banks are among them, the service industry. We do not have that void. Ideally, you associate the company with the greatest premium automobiles ever built. Certainly we are happy that a young Gerhard Richter was commissioned in 1972 to create three huge paintings for the lobby of our headquarters. The BMW Art Cars from Lichtenstein, Stella, Warhol and Koons to Rauschenberg, Calder, Eliasson, Hockney and Holzer add to the great art we are delighted to call ours. Other than that, we collect art from the young students of art academies in the cities in which we operate – or make it possible for them to engage in exchange programs between each other. This is also a great collection, though you may not recognize any of the names. Good Corporate Citizenship is a key factor in anything we can do – and supporting young talents is essential to us.

There are so many luxury brands that want to associate themselves with art and culture – what advice would you give to a brand that wants to foster a real, authentic relationship with artists?
Be mindful of the sensibilities of the cultural world. Engage in mutual partnerships long-term and in sustainable ways. See what cultural institution correlates most with what it is that you would like to achieve – together. Make your decisions based on the company’s strategy, not according to your own taste. Understand that culture is civilization’s essential and fragile contribution. It is you and the institution you work with who may honor this responsibility by creating something true. The subtlety of your approach speaks of your company’s reputation. Do not shy away from experience, experiment, and participation. Your reputation, visibility, and image can be enhanced in manifold meaningful ways. Realize that it’s worth it every step of the way.