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Jeff Koons Art Car Boosts BMW's Cachet

NEW YORK (MainStreet) Wednesday night at Art Basel Miami Beach in the city's Botanical Garden, BMW unveiled the Jeff Koons-decorated M3 GT2 Art Car, the seventeenth in a series the automaker has commissioned from blue-chip artists like Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol and David Hockney.

The American premiere of this vehicle served as a condensed version of the amped-up strategy BMW has conceived to promote the brand as a beacon of arts, culture and sophistication. The bursting supernova of colored striationssome reminiscent of the balloon quality that marks much of Koons's workprovides a framework to expand one's impression of the vehicle.

"I was just trying to think about energy and the design of the car, and where the car would have an interaction with energy," Koons told the crowd. "And to show its potential for speed and power."

BMW has smartly positioned itself at Miami Beach with the world's most famous artists to build off of the art world's momentum and associate that fervor with the auto brand's own artistic heritage.

And though some would criticize the frankensteined nature of the automotive and aesthetic worlds in the Art Car, Thomas Girst, head of cultural engagement at BMW AG, is quick to point out the authenticity behind this brand initiative.

"On the side of BMW, it's not about introducing the brand and the car to the art, it's more about a deep appreciation for the art and racing," he said. "It wasn't PR and marketing people putting their heads together thinking, 'How can we introduce our brand to the arts?' It's not about throwing money at institutions to make things possible."

The genesis of the BMW Art Car series actually arose organically. In 1975 Herve Poulain, a French racecar driver, commissioned his friend Alexander Calder to paint a BMW 3.0 CSLagreed upon by the automaker's marketing team at the time. What began as a one-off turned into an extended series.

Girst believes the Art Car to be a continuation of the fascination artists have had with cars since these machines were invented, citing Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's 1896 lithograph "L'Automobiliste" and the heralding in 1909's The Futurist Manifesto of the car as the modern sculpture.

Warhol echoed this sentiment when calling his paint-slapped 1979 M1 a "rolling sculpture," and the Koons car comes emblazoned with a "79" in homage to that vehicle, part of the 24-hour race at Le Mans that year.

"The avant-garde artists were infatuated with speed and the energy and everything that came along with it the rush of adrenaline," Girst said. "BMW Art Car fits right in there and has a trajectory of almost four decades now engaging the greatest artists on this planet to tackle the idea of mobility, to create art cars that are a show stopper that are of tremendous visual importance."

Public Art, Public Perception

BMW has ramped up its arts involvement in recent years with the ambitious BMW Guggenheim Lab project starting in 2011 that featured pop-up hubs lasting three months in each location across the world to address such issues as technology, design and urban mobility. That project has since been suspended, but the auto brand is in talks with the Guggenheim to be a continued global partner.

BMW has also invested in major initiatives at the Tate Modern in London, the National State Opera in Berlin and art fairs from Art Basel in Switzerland to Frieze Art Fair London.

BMW is well-known and not necessarily in need of more brand recognition. It is hungry, though, to influence how the general population views the maker of premium cars. In a sense, through the Art Car series and its artistic initiatives, BMW is creating a visual ambassador for its corporate citizenship.

"The public perception of companies has changed in a way that it's no longer only about your core business in how you're being perceived," Girst said. "It's also about what do you do within society, how do you behave within society. What is it that sets you apart from the competition not only when it comes to your core business but also when it comes to your societal, your sports, your art engagement? It's about visibility beyond branding."

Howard Belk, co-CEO of strategic branding firm Siegel+Gale, considers BMW's marketing approach in the Art Car to be subtly intelligent.

"This long-running program helps BMW connect with the younger, hipper, trend-setting customer segment that differentiates them from their principal competitor Mercedes," Belk said. "Choosing to partner with globally acclaimed artists such as Koons, Warhol, Calder is effectively a classic co-brand strategy. There are very few brands that can lift BMW, because it already enjoys an established position in the pantheon of premier, badge-brands. These artists further add credential the BMW brand as innovative, original and breakthrough."

But will it make a difference in terms of cars sold?

"It will definitely move the sales needle," Belk said. "Choosing to unveil Koons's car at Art Basel Miami is smart. Firstly, that show is attended by a well-heeled crowd, arriving via their NetJet, who have the means to buy. Secondly, they're trendsetters, scale tippers. Others want to emulate their success and owning the same cars is a simple way to do that."

Norman Braman, a renowned Miami-based art collector who owns lucrative car dealerships (BMW ones among them), is comfortable calling a spade a spade when it comes to the Art Car series and branding.

"You're always going to find critics, but look, in terms of [Art Basel Miami Beach], understand that this is a commercial fair," he said.

BMW supplies the vehicles for the VIPs at the art fair and has its company's BMWs, MINIs, and Rolls-Royces ubiquitously on display. BMW's brand integration into the sprawling landscape of the arts scene in Miami, thus, taps into the sophistication and exposes the automobiles to high-net-worth individuals. The Art Car, especially for famously commercial artists from Warhol to Koons, is not disguised as a labor of love and pure aesthetic interest. It's an exercise in business positioning.

"There's nothing wrong with the free enterprise system for commercial purposes," Braman said. "This fair is a commercial fair."

--Written by Ross Kenneth Urken for MainStreet

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