German automaker Volkswagen has been linked with iconic design since before the outbreak of World War Two when the design of the car that would come to be called "Beetle" began shaking up the auto industry establishment. To rekindle its identity with art and design, the company has cut a far reaching deal to associate its brand with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Financial backing from VW will fuel four artistic initiatives at MoMA: a major international exhibition project facilitated by Klaus Biesenbach, MoMA's chief curator at large; the expansion of MoMA's education program including digital learning; VW's donation to MoMA of two significant video works by Francis Alys ("Tornado" and "Mirage"); and sponsored exhibitions in MoMA"s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden for a two-year period.

As Glenn D. Lowry, director of MoMA, quipped, "Das MoMA and das Auto will work together in a strong partnership."

This marriage of art and auto is part of a major push by VW on several fronts to get its brand name and new products in front of as many influential consumers (art patrons included) as possible. The German automaker has just opened a new manufacturing plant in Tennessee. It has an often stated goal of selling 800,000 VW branded vehicles a year by 2018 (up from fewer than 250,000 last year). And it has an all-new Beetle design hitting showrooms in the fall.

"This is about more than sponsoring," said Hans Dieter Potsch, Member of the Board in Volkswagen Group Finances and Controlling. "What we are looking for is the intensive and instructive dialogue between the worlds of art and industry...We regard our commitment as an investment, an investment in the societies that we work and live in...We are very much aware that a global player like Volkswagen can only be successful in a society that has set the right long-term course for development."

At bottom, though, this is marketing. "The VW brand is already on the radar screens of the kind of consumers who would be traveling in museums and art and design communities, but this deeper association and financial support shows those people that VW as a company shares their values and ideals," says Los Angeles-based marketing consultant Dennis Keene.

Volkswagen is not just writing checks, though. It intends to have the involvement of MoMA inform its product and design decisions. "We're confident that the exchange with MoMA"s artistic think tank will help Volkswagen to extend its pioneering role in the automotive industry," Potsch said.

VW already has a corporate identity campaign meant to position the brand worldwide as modern and progressive, "Think Blue," that the MoMa association is designed to help. "Think Blue is an invitation to question the established concepts and develop new perspective on the pressing issues of our age, and that's precisely how we perceive our partnership with MoMA," said VW chairman Martin Winterkorn.

VW is not the first German car maker to allign with a major museum. BMW's Guggenheim Lab looks to foster sustainability and acts as a sort of ongoing focus group looking at the future of urban transportation.

The VW-MoMA partnership, by contrast, remains a more peculiar beast: the objective, at least outwardly, is to fund art and emerging artists--no immediate ulterior motives, no nonsense, no building the urban vehicle of the future.

The Market Challenge

"The reality is that Volkswagen continues to grow, and they have very aggressive plans to expand their profile globally, but a real important market for them is the U.S.," said Mike Jackson, IHS Automotive's director of North American Vehicle Forecasting. "Obviously being associated with innovation, and associated with avant-garde thinking with MoMA...the idea is that VW is looking to expand its influence and associate the brand with that which is cutting edge."

Jackson pointed to the brand recognition of the original VW Beetle or the VW Microbus as pop-cultural icons, but noted the reluctance today for many Americans to embrace the brand over reasons of price or poor quality.

The gambit to play up its art association, while it takes more time to improve its quality rankings, may be a smart one for VW.

The sponsorship has shown up visually at MoMA with VW signage in some galleries--visible to the museum's 2.5 million annual visitors. The traveling exhibitions will grab additional brand exposure and association with emerging artists as well as tapping into diverse populations around the world.

The association with MoMA also figures to be fodder for the all-important Facebook and Twitter feeds. "Certainly there's a component of digital that MoMA's getting into in a big way that coincides with the digital that VW's getting into," VW chief spokesman Tony Cervone said. "But there's benefit to viral campaigns. Probably more Facebook than Twitter. We're getting fairly aggressive in the digital space."

He believes, for example, the Beetle unveil at the New York International Auto Show to have nabbed the most hits for any single, company-sponsored event in the history of Twitter-beating out the Old Spice man and Toy Story 2 campaigns. In the April 15 to April 19 reveal period, there were a total of 42,494 mentions of the Beetle with tweets generating 55,428,418 potential impressions (calculated as a sum of followers).

The Bottom Line: Volkswagen's partnership with MoMA will fund fantastic art exhibitions, but whether VW net productive dividends in sales remains to be seen. This will be a slow-moving reinvention of Volkswagen to tap more deeply into the U.S. that may not show a significant ROI in the immediate future.