NEW YORK—I'm at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), feet away from Björk, and all around me is a celebration of the woman’s life. And I’m here because of ... Volkswagen?

Yes indeed. This was Björk’s first major exhibition in a museum, and VW’s electronics research laboratory (with German sound agencies Klangerfinder and S12) developed software that is used in the show’s audio guide (it’s a headphones-friendly show). But VW also has an ongoing relationship with MOMA.

Bjork at MOMA opening for the art show

Bjork in New York for her MOMA opening. VW helped. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

What do Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Alexander Calder, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg have in common? They’ve all painted BMW racing art cars, which are now the treasured possessions of the automaker in Munich. Koons’ car, an M3 GT2, is said to be “evocative of power, motion and bursting energy.”

The Bjork exhibition features her costumes and a VW-assisted sound installation.

The Bjork exhibition features her costumes and a VW-assisted sound installation. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Automakers, especially European ones, are embracing art and music big time. The concept of associating themselves with culture is probably good for business, and in the same basic category as their support for polo matches, concours d’elegance and other high-end cultural events.

Sandro Chia's 3-Series BMW art car dates to 1992. The automaker still owns it, and all the art cars.

Sandro Chia's 3-Series BMW art car dates to 1992. The automaker still owns it, and all the art cars. (Photo: BMW)

I talked to Stacey Morris of BMW, and she told me, “The German people support the arts tremendously, and we bring that out in what we do.” Indeed, large-scale government subsidizing of the arts is common throughout Europe and Canada, though it’s relatively rare in the U.S.

This creates the rather odd situation of European, not American, automakers supporting American artists in America. BMW began supporting art, initially for its German headquarters, in 1972. The automaker rolled out its most recent (and 17th) art car, painted by Jeff Koons, in 2010, and has since toured it widely. And BMW is sponsoring Paris Photo LA, a photography fair started in France but since migrated to California.

Jeff Koons with his 2010 art car in Paris.

Jeff Koons with his 2010 art car in Paris. (Photo: BMW)

It’s not a small-scale endeavor: Prize-winning French photographers are flown to LA for the event, after a residency at a French museum. Coming up in May is the Frieze Art Fair on Randall’s Island in New York, also with BMW sponsorship. In this case, visitors get ferried back to Manhattan in 7-Series cars playing a curated sound installation.

BMW has forged a lasting partnership with New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and the resulting BMW Guggenheim Lab traveled to Mumbai, Berlin and New York. And let’s not forget Art Basel Miami Beach, next held in December. “We support all the Art Basels,” said Morris, meaning Hong Kong and Switzerland as well as south Florida. The art cars come out to play at those events, including Roy Lichtenstein’s 320 Group 5 car and Michael Jagamara Nelson’s M3 at the 2014 event in Miami.

Other automakers are at play in the art world, too. Earlier this year, Rolls-Royce celebrated a neon sculpture installation by Chicago-born artist Carlos Rolón-Dzine ... in Singapore. Since he’s also a National Endowment of the Arts recipient, this is a rare case of an artist with many helping hands.

Audi is big into art, and is the Whitney Museum’s “official automotive partner” for the first year of its new building in New York’s meatpacking district (opening in late May). An “Audi Lounge” space will be opened for members during special events. Audi is also a supporter of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe.

Audi art happening

Audi's multimedia art happening in Santa Monica. (Photo: Audi)

Audi’s A3 also played host to a nearly indescribable event last year in Santa Monica, in which 15 young “creators” — including musicians, filmmakers, artists and performers brought @paidmydues posts to life. It sounds very cool.

Honda partnered with the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington to present an overview of Japanese-American artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s work. Kuniyoshi went from being a declared enemy alien who was interred during World War II to a highly successful American artist who incorporated both U.S. folk art and Japanese influences. Honda compares him to its own founder, Soichiro Honda, who overcame his own American obstacles — after first setting up to sell motorcycles in Los Angeles in 1959. The exhibit runs through Aug. 30.

Honda is supporting a major retrospective of Japanese-American artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi's work. This is a self-portrait.

Honda is supporting a major retrospective of Japanese-American artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi's work. This is a self-portrait. (Photo courtesy of Honda)

Hyundai is sponsoring installations at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall this year.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that American automakers are helping support hometown Detroit art, including largess from Ford and General Motors for the Detroit Institute of Arts. GM is also helping out the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. Just about every automaker is supporting the arts in their own way. Here's a closer look at BMW's art cars on video, proving that they go as well as they show:

(Madeline Horrigan provided research assistance.)

Related on MNN:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.