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I Went to Every BMW Press Event at Art Basel Miami Beach

I recently participated in the art world’s yearly pilgrimage to Art Basel Miami Beach, the most important art event of the year in the U.S., where buyers and galleries exchange millions of dollars and flaunt their extravagant wealth. Corporate branding and sponsorship run rampant, exemplified by the many parties and events hosted by companies like BMW, Ciroc and Sotheby’s. It takes place at the Miami Beach Convention Center, where over 250 galleries set up shop in temporary booths, while hundreds of other galleries install themselves at concurrent satellite fairs. This temporary tax shelter — where less stringent duties than usual apply — allures many international galleries and collectors. Over two days, I participated in all the special events organized by BMW, the longtime main sponsor of the fair, and I considered the intersection of cars, art and culture.

BMW has participated in art patronage since French racer Herve Poulain commissioned Alexander Calder to paint the first BMW Art Car, which would then race in the 1975 24 Hours of LeMans. Over the following years, BMW Art Cars were produced by many great artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Jenny Holzer and John Baldessari. Although originally used in races, BMW’s Art Car initiative has evolved over the years, showcasing new technologies and producing museum-quality pieces exemplifying its commitment to the arts. In 2007, Danish artist Olafur Eliasson used a BMW H2R Hydrogen-powered race car in a rolling ice sculpture highlighting awareness of global warming at Copenhagen’s climate conference. Last year, Chinese artist Cao Fei incorporated augmented reality into her art car, visualizing colorful streamers flying over a blacked-out M6 GT3 visible through a smartphone app.

Beyond art cars designed by the world’s top contemporary artists, BMW has also taken a more complex approach to branding, and has infused itself into the highbrow, cutting-edge DNA of Art Basel. Their events showcased a commitment to culture by realizing artistic visions that are shown under the Art Basel marquee. They also provided a drop-off service using a fleet of BMWs for anyone brandishing a VIP card and willing to ride through the traffic-choked city created by the fair itself.

BMW’s involvement in this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach started with a party at the Faena, a glitzy new hotel in the middle of Miami Beach. I walked past a completely gold-leafed Mammoth skeleton by British artist Damien Hirst to a temporary dome set up for events. Inside the dome was the BMW Concept 8 Series atop a circular pedestal, surrounded by live music, hors d’oeuvres and an open bar. One hour into the reception, attendees were ushered to the beach for a nighttime display of "Franchise Freedom," a temporary sculpture by Amsterdam-based artist-duo Studio Drift set to a piano score. Under the night sky, 300 illuminated drones flew into formation, mimicking a flock of flying birds. Silently, party attendees watched the visually stunning demonstration, as the drones in partnership created a unique form determined by wind conditions. Toward the end of the automated performance, the swarm of illuminating drones went dark before flying away. The audience stood in silent amazement as the drones swarmed above, gasping as they went dark. This artwork was a taste of our autonomous future, with clear parallels to current automotive innovations.

The following morning, I was back at the Faena for BMW’s Media Reception. Over breakfast, I was introduced to Dr. Thomas Girst, BMW Group’s head of cultural engagement, who presented BMW’s Art Journey — a travel grant provided to an emerging artist selected by a committee of international curators and museum directors. The breakfast was a celebration for last year’s winner, Los Angeles-based artist Max Hooper Schneider. Max’s BMW Art Journey funded his travels around the globe while he studied reef systems compromised by human contact in Bikini Atoll, Fukushima and Madagascar. There were few rules: No visiting outer space, and no travel further than 1,000 feet below the surface of the earth. Max Hooper Schneider created ecosystem sculptures that represented the landscapes he visited, as well as a video of his travels set to heavy metal music. From the exhibition in the BMW Lounge, an Albino Crayfish had earlier escaped its vitrine and wandered the VIP area of the fair.

Later that day, I visited the VIP Lounge again for an interview with Dr. Girst and to hear the short-list announcement of next year’s BMW Art Journey. Dr. Girst has been the BMW Group Director of International Cultural Engagement since 2003. In conversation, he pointed out that many people with careers at BMW change jobs every 3 years, but he’s devoted to being the culture guy and can’t do anything else. In his role, he has established an impressive program going beyond emblazoning a logo. The BMW Art Journey serves as an extension of the brand’s philosophy of being on the forefront of innovation, which shows through its investment in the future of the arts. Despite calling himself "the culture guy" at BMW, Girst’s brand loyalty runs deep; his first car was a 1985 3 Series that was given to him. Since then, he has only owned BMWs.

At Art Basel, BMW has expanded its vision as a corporate entity. As a car enthusiast and writer, I was impressed by the level of integration with arts and culture. My only criticism is that the entirety of BMW’s influence is only accessible to VIPs. Max Hooper Schneider’s Art Journey was only visible in the BMW Lounge, their events were by invitation, and a chauffered drop-off in a shiny new 7 Series was a privilege only afforded to the elite. However, this exclusivity does match that of the event. BMW has made a smart investment in artistic innovation while also entertaining potential clientele in its car business. Whether it sells enough cars to offset the fleet of chauffeurs, parties and events is one question, but it’s harder to put a dollar value on the cultural capital it reaps at Art Basel Miami Beach. Find a BMW for sale

Sam Keller is a visual artist from Brooklyn. He runs the Instagram account @hamptonwhipz, capturing classic cars in the Hamptons, New York City, and anywhere else his travels take him.

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