We’re cheering from sidelines for India to rise more: Thomas Girst, Global head of cultural engagement, BMW Group

As a thriving democracy, India should do more for contemporary art, as it’s critical and political, said Thomas Girst, global head of cultural engagement at BMW Group. He is in the country for ‘India Art Fair 2024’, in which the auto giant is the principal partner. In a conversation with ET’s Krishnaraj Singh Jasana, he explains why an artist should have a backup plan and why artificial intelligence (AI) will not disrupt art. Edited excerpts:

What does art mean to BMW? Is encouraging art through events like the India Art Fair an extension of sales promotion or marketing?
Frankly, nothing that we do in culture is done for anthropology or for altruistic reasons. It’s done for the image and the reputation of the brand. But, that’s just one part. We’ve been active in arts for 50 years now, with hundreds of initiatives worldwide. Now, they always have to bridge the gap (between commercial and societal responsibilities) because one of the pillars of our engagement is corporate social responsibility. How do you return to a society that you do successful business in?The art market is a $60-billion business every year, and India’s part in it is growing. So, of course, an art fair is a commercial enterprise and we’re here possibly for future customers. So ideally, you have a platform that can cater to both these needs.

So, let’s say we’re working with this young artist Shashikanth Thavudoz. He can employ his practice to create an immersive environment, of which i-7 is a part. As a winner of ‘The Future is Born of Art’ Commission (BMW’s initiative), he gets a monetary compensation (~10,00,000) (rupees); it’s a prize for a young emerging artist. It’s a collaboration that is getting sturdier. So, it’s not a talk-talk but a walk-walk for us.

But the struggle for an artist in India is an everyday affair. What do you make of art in India?

I’ve been regularly coming to the India Art Fair, which is now in its 15th year. When we look at art in India, a lot of it is folk art. A lot of it comes from a rich tradition of craft. So, contemporary art is a very small segment here. But it is growing. You see the success of it when it comes to auction results, with not only foreign collectors interested in contemporary Indian art but also collectors within India.There are many artists now who are known internationally, like Jitish Kallat, Anita Dube, and like those who are working abroad, like Anish Kapoor.But it’s a huge imbalance that for a country of 1.4 billion people; you only have two, three public museums for modern and contemporary art. Any small village in Germany has more than that.

And you have a great, rich story to tell. You have such amazing artists. There needs to be an infrastructure in place. And I don’t see why not. Arts can be critical, political. And, you’re a huge democracy.

You teach on the subject too, back home in Germany. How does one go about it?
In Germany, one out of 100 artists can live of her work. So, I tell my class, look, find another job, as none of you will be able to live from your art. The best poets of the early 20th century in the US were either lawyers or gynaecologists, or anything else. It doesn’t need to be your solitary profession. I always encourage artists to do something entirely different, and then it informs their artistic practice. It’s not good to be in an ivory tower. You have to be relevant. You have to address an audience.

You’ve travelled the world and have been travelling to India for more than a decade now. Has there been a change in how the world looks at the country?
I only travel within the city, so you cannot really fathom the overall situation. I would hope, and I see reading the paper in India and abroad, that India is doing better. The country is definitely on the rise; we believe that at BMW. I mean, we sell 15,000 units per year for a country of 1.4 billion people, so there are possibilities. That’s why we’re here, that’s why we opened a plant in Chennai in 2007. That’s why we engage in the arts. That’s why we spread the dealerships, because we believe in making business, in providing great cars for India’s future. We are cheering on the sidelines for this giant to rise even more.

Finally, with artificial intelligence taking over, will originality in art become a thing of the past?
When it comes to the hype around NFTs — non-fungible tokens – it actually stands for neoliberal futile trash. And that’s what it turned out to be. I think AI is another tool, like a brush. It’s not taking over the arts. It enables the arts. We work with AI.

As Hito Steyrl (German contemporary artist) said, everybody’s talking about artificial intelligence. Why does nobody talk about artificial stupidity?

I think there’s even bigger interest now, the more the digital world is taking over, the more there is an interest in the analogue, at least when it comes to conflict.

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