It’s not that artists are using more cars in their work, but rather that automotive companies, eager to align their brands with innovation, a global outlook, and the avant-garde, have become major sponsors at a number of contemporary-art institutions, including MoMA and MoMA PS 1, the Guggenheim, and Tate Modern.
What’s remarkable about these relationships is the extent of the commitments, which often span years. Hyundai, for example, announced last year that it would support a decade-long series of site-specific installations by contemporary artists in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall beginning in 2015, and this year Volkswagen celebrated three years of partnership with MoMA and MoMA PS1. Other sponsorships include support by Ford, General Motors, and Mercedes-Benz Financial Services for the Detroit Institute of Arts, and by General Motors for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
The Foundation Center, a leading source of information about philanthropy worldwide, does not track the giving practices of any particular industry, but there is anecdotal evidence of a rise in museum support by car companies. Michel Gabriel, an expert on the automotive industry at Interbrand, the world’s largest brand consultancy, has noted the increase. He says the road to museum sponsorship for car companies began in the 1970s with the creation of a number of corporate museums related to the history of the companies themselves, such as the original Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, which opened in 1976.
The relationship progressed to projects with artists, such as Keith Haring’s hand-painting of a BMW in a German gallery in 1987. The next phase involved discussions and collaborations with contemporary-art museums.
No one at any of the museums with car company sponsorship said they felt compelled to organize a specific type of show—certainly not anything related to cars.
Achim Borchardt-Hume, head of exhibitions at Tate Modern, notes that the audience for contemporary art is larger than ever before—Tate Modern attracts five million visitors a year. “That makes it extremely appealing for car companies, which are trying to make the best use of their philanthropic dollars,” he says. The big overlap between car companies and museums, he adds, is that they are all operating globally. “These companies believe that museums that deal with contemporary art are astutely aware of global currents,” he says.
Andrew Cullis, a London-based marketing director for Hyundai, says that Tate’s global reach was an important consideration. Equally important was to create new associations for Hyundai. “As any brand knows, you need to focus not just on the practical, but the emotional,” he says. “We ask ourselves, people who buy our cars, what do they appreciate and enjoy?”
In March, Hyundai helped the Tate acquire nine works by Nam June Paik, and late last year the company launched a ten-year partnership with the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul.
Hyundai isn’t the only car company trying to make an impression on Tate’s visitors. Three years ago, Tate received a four-year sponsorship commitment from BMW for live performance and interdisciplinary art programming in the galleries and online. Titled “BMW Tate Live,” the program has been offering performances in person and online ever since, including two more this year by Selma and Sofiane Ouissi this month and Alexandra Bachzetsis in October.
BMW has also been a major supporter of the Guggenheim Museum. BMW Guggenheim Lab, a project about urban living, traveled to three cities—New York, Berlin, and Mumbai. BMW also supports more than a dozen art fairs, including the two Art Basel and three Frieze fairs.
“We’re in the business of creating desire,” says Thomas Girst, head of cultural engagement at BMW. “When collectors worldwide spend billions on art, that’s where you want to be.”
Girst says that BMW is not interested in displaying its name prominently all over a museum or fair. “The subtlety of your visibility speaks of the sophistication of your brand,” he says. “Nothing should interfere with the experience of the viewer or listener. That’s not how we roll.”
Girst and other car-company representatives declined to disclose the exact amounts of their financial commitments. “We want to be judged by the content of what we do,” Girst says. “Any company can throw money at a cultural institution. We’re not sponsoring individual shows, but engaging in long-term partnerships that we choose, entering into a dialogue to see what we will do together.”
For three years, Volkswagen Group of America has partnered with MoMA and MoMA PS1. “Volkswagen is interested in creativity, innovation, and good design, and it’s a perfect fit in the relationship,” says Bishop. “One of the great things for us is that it’s one of the first multi-year, multi-faceted commitments.”
Volkswagen’s support has been used for 20 projects, including the recent Sigmar Polke exhibition, the Kraftwerk retrospective concerts in 2012, and an ongoing international exhibition project focused on economic and ecological issues called “EXPO 1.” Talking about “EXPO 1,” the brainchild of PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, Bishop says, “They made something happen that we couldn’t do without them.”
“We’re not just putting our logo on the wall,” von Mahlzahn says. “It’s a lot about social responsibility.”
Volkswagen also supports an online education program at MoMA that reaches people all over the world. While MoMA owns a number of cars in its design collection, including a Volkswagen Beetle, von Mahlzahn jokes that she has been working on them to buy a few more.
Von Maltzahn believes there is raised awareness in the world about how car companies behave. “Young people who consider buying a product think about what that brand is doing, not just because it has so-and-so horsepower,” she says. “In the end, I think it’s about the image.”
Michelle Falkenstein is a freelance writer in New York who covers the arts.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 50 under the title “Delivering More than Fast Cars.”