BMW Art Journey, trip of creative discovery, a conversation with Thomas Girst

by Mara Sartore
December 17, 2015
Mara Sartore
Young Samson

Like a mobile studio, the BMW Art Journey take artists anywhere in the world to develop new ideas and envision new creative projects. After Samson Young this year BMW has announced during Art Basel in Miami Beach the 3 new finalists for the 2016 prize:

Henning Fehr & Philipp Rühr at Galerie Max Mayer, Dusseldorf

Dan Bayles at François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles

Fritzia Irizar at Arredondo Arozarena, Mexico City


On this occasion I have met Dr. Thomas Girst, Head of Cultural Engagement at the BMW Group, to ask him how this project was born.


Mara Sartore: The reason why I wanted to interview you is because I see many common points between what BMW is doing and what we are doing at My Art Guides. How did the Art Journey project start?

Thomas Girst: The idea was to do something together with Art Basel that would not be limited to providing a shuttle service. We have been active in the arts for almost fifty years with hundreds of initiatives worldwide and whenever we do things, we strive to do them differently. There are hundreds and hundreds of prizes for contemporary art out there, all over the world. There’s nothing wrong with that but we didn’t want to introduce the umpteenth prize, we wanted to come up with something that would really make a difference in terms of an artist’s creativity, providing an artist with the space to breathe basically, the opportunity to do research or create. After a lot of consulting with artists and others the idea of the BMW Art Journey was born, taking the artists on a road trip and basically having artists map out the journey of their dreams and everything that they have always wanted to do while travelling but they didn’t have the funding or the time. We wanted to make sure they have both of these things, as much as they like. That’s how the Art Journey came into being. Artists were also telling me that the project is great because usually they have many constraints in the art world and in the art market especially while the Art Journey gives them the opportunity to make use of their time in a way that they are not as much restrained by whatever they have to do each day.

MS: Samson Young was the first artist to win this opportunity to travel. How does the process work? How can an artist participate?

TG: You have to opt in to be eligible after your gallery has been chosen to represent your work in the Discovery section for Art Basel in Hong Kong or in the Position section here at Art Basel in Miami Beach. Those galleries are approached to see whether their artists want be part of the Art Journey selection process and usually most of their artists say yes. The Art Journey is good not only because of the artists that take part in it, but also because of its jurors. We are very happy to be working with, among others, Massimiliano Gioni from the New Museum in New York, Richard Armstrong from the Guggenheim Museum, Victoria Noorthoorn from the Museum of the Contemporary Art in Buenos Aires. It’s different juries for Hong Kong and for Miami. There might be a few changes if some people are not available but each jury is made up of five people. The jurors go to see the artist at the both as most often he or she is there, they talk to the galleries, they really spend time on the project. It is gratifying for me on a personal level to go and look at art and take your time. In a way, art fairs can teach you a wrong way to look at art because you’re going too fast, wanting to take it all in. Spending time at a gallery talking to the artist, gives the art the potential of opening up to you and of creating an experience for you. Based on the initial choice based on the work that is shown at the booth, a shortlist of three is being picked which will be announced after the jury has convened. The three artists then have a month and a half or so to create a proposal for a journey. Those proposals are then being evaluated by the same jury, one artist wins the journey and the others receive a honorarium, which I think is very important since they’ve put some time and effort into this.

MS: How long does the trip last? Is there a specific time frame you give?

TG: We tried to have as little coordinates set as possible, but we have to have some. The journey has to be at least two weeks long and at least 100 km need to be covered because you could end up with a conceptual artists who might say says “my journey is to walk one cm a day in my room” it’s been done before yet in this case we actually wanted this project to entail a somewhat longer journey.

MS: Does it need to be a road trip?

TG: Not necessarily, you can’t go to the moon and you can’t use a submarine, there are certain limits. You could cycle; it’s very important for me to say that there’s no need to have cars involved. As I said at the beginning at BMW, given that there are hundreds of initiatives worldwide, we have a great network in each country with which we can help the artists, not only in regards to how they get from A to B. It’s also about opening doors, take Samson for example: through our connections he was able to go to the Hermitage in S. Petersburg to record Katherin the Great’s Peacock Clock after hours. The curators actually opened the clock for him so he could listen to it chime and take in its inner workings. Nobody usually has the opportunity to do so but thanks to our connections we were happy to make that happen for him.

MS: What about The Sense of Movement, this book you have just released? Is it connected to the art journey and is it the first one of a series of books?

TG: What’s important to us in everything that we do in being partners in culture is also that we create some context and gravitas. It’s not just about some pretty painting that a company might like, it’s also really getting to the bottom of things by contributing to scholarship as well, so the book was a project that is dear to us for this very reason: the Sense of Movement is not about any Art Journey’s artist but it is an overview from over 300 journeys throughout the past centuries that we were looking at. Some of them have to do with exile, some of them with ordeal, we were discovering and examining patterns in terms of journeys that some artists take. This book is written by art historians that are specialists on this subject matter and now whenever you study artist journeys, perhaps when you’re doing your PhD, this book could become a reference. It does not strive to be comprehensive but I think we came off with a very decent publication that basically showcases the fertile ground from which future journeys take off from.

MS: Back to the Art Journey, does the artist have to commit to produce something?

TG: To tell you the truth: we were discussing this and we felt like we shouldn’t really put pressure on the artist to create something within a set period of time. Creativity has so many different ways of coming into being so providing a deadline for an artist is not fair in this case. We believe that the journey can be undertaken to document something that will lead to a work in the future. It can be for research, it can be to engage in a dialogue with different cultures or it can be to actually create things on the road that are already artworks or the journey itself can be the artwork! You basically have many different possibilities none of which we wanted to prescribe. We are really lucky and happy with Samson that he created work while he was traveling and that the work is now being presented in galleries and shows so this is of course a dream come true from our side but, as BMW doesn’t partake in the jury, it’s also key not to interfere either with the artistic vision or how the artist is being chosen.

MS: Will a book about the project be a diary of the Art Journey?

TG: If it comes into being it certainly could be, I also see a digital component to the book and probably something that has to do with being able to engage on an interactive level but again it’s up to Samson and what he chooses to come up with for the book – he has provided great blogs while on the road and our website has been in place from the get-go..

MS: Do you follow the journey of the artist or is he alone?

TG: Through our networks we are set up to assist the artist wherever he is, from Myanmar to South America. Some people followed him in two or three cities to document what he did, we talked to him about that before, whether he was OK with that. Let me tell you one last thing: to me one of the most gratifying experiences this year was that I felt that I needed to go to see Samson work and I spent three days with him in France when he was looking at bells, we went to little remote villages in the early hours of the morning, with the mayors opening up the churches for us. One morning I was even holding Samson by the ankles so he could slide under a bell to read the inscription on the other side, high up on the church steeple with a beautiful countryside all around. He is aware I’m telling this story of a great moment shared and he only tells me not to mention that he was wearing Mickey Mouse socks!

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