The Lab, designed by Japanese architectural firm Atelier Bow-Wow, will be an open-air installation featuring an open-air loft built largely of carbon fiber (a substance BMW plans to use in its vehicles) and designed almost as a theater space with elements that can drop down from the overhead space, a kind of Swiss Army knife of cultural props and media implements.
The Lab's co-curator David van der Leer said the project will serve as an urban forum to deal with social, political and environmental issues with an initial theme on "confronting comfort."
The global tour starts in New York City, with tenure from August to October in a city-owned lot on Second Avenue near Houston Street. It then moves to Berlin in 2012 and then to Asia.
Jim O'Donnell, president and CEO, BMW North America, LLC, said the program aligns with the automaker's efforts expand into urban mobility. Van der Leer describes it as "a mixture of urban/public think tank and gathering space. The Lab team will use space as a platform for investigation of key urban challenges, public programs, workshops and experiments that rely on public interaction."
The company has been doing cultural programs worldwide for nearly half a century, much of it with more direct ties to BMW products, such as the art car project. "But in terms of scale and magnitude, with a cultural institution this is the biggest adventure we have ever been in," says Thomas Girst, BMW Group Spokesman Culture Communication at the company's Munich headquarters.
Girst tells Marketing Daily that the project reflects BMW's efforts to "exceed the core auto business," along the lines of its BMWi Ventures venture capital firm based in New York.
"We had been working on this for a year and a half; the Guggenheim is ideal because they are so open to new ideas that exceed their core focus on arts." The Guggenheim's "Art of the Motorcycle" exhibition shows how the museum is not averse to venturing into industrial design, he says.
"They are willing to expand what it is [that] one considers to be 'art,'" he says, adding that while BMW will assist in publicizing the Lab in the nine cities in which it will be installed, the lab's "cultural integrity" and creative freedom stays with Guggenheim.
Girst adds that while BMW expects to borrow some reputational glow from the effort, brand-building is not the point. "Certainly you are not getting involved in philanthropy without it reflecting upon the reputation of the brand. But it's not about branding. It's not a sponsorship. I would like to think that BMW will be seen as an authentic partner in the arts, and beyond that, as a good corporate citizen that understands the intricacies of the arts world. It is important to get involved for the long term. Ultimately, I want BMW to be perceived as a company genuinely interested in the challenges that lie ahead."
Said Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation: "[The museum] has long been associated with architecture and design. We hear about luxury brands, but not luxury of intellectual activity. This allows us to open doors and go down new pathways." But he added that the Guggenheim is also a global brand with a global network of museums, and the Lab partnership makes the museum more of a populist brand. "This allows us to expand our activities around the world," he said. "For people who still imagine museums as ivory towers, this lets us get involved in communities."