There’s not a corporate logo in sight at the countercultural arts festival, and nothing is for sale but ice and coffee. But at its core, [Larry] Harvey believes that Burning Man hews closely to the true spirit of a free-enterprise democracy: Ingenuity is celebrated, autonomy is affirmed, and self-reliance is expected. “If you’re talking about old-fashioned, Main Street Republicanism, we could be the poster child,” says Harvey
I want what he’s smoking!
“People say, what does Burning Man have to do with politics? In our history, it has everything to do politics. First, we had to create a civil society — that’s politics. Then we had to survive in the world, because we’re on federal land — that’s politics,” he adds. “In complying with the rules and engaging in politics, we learned a lot about how the world works.”
Ezra confirms that Burning Man is almost always a profit making machine:
For more than two decades, the festival has funded itself entirely through donations and ticket sales — which now go up to $300 a pop — and it’s almost never gone in the red
Note that the donations aren’t to Burning Man, to fund the party. The donations that fund the festival are the Burners spending the money to gift the art and everything else. Burning Man funds itself on ticket sales and volunteer labor.
It seems that we’re not the only ones musing on the intersection of art, business, and poverty
These days, Harvey — now in his mid-60s, dressed in a gray cowboy hat, silver western shirt, and aviator sunglasses — is just as likely to reference Richard Florida as the beatniks he once met on Haight Street. Most recently, he’s been talking with Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, who shares his vision of revitalizing Las Vegas, one of the cities hardest hit by the recent housing bust. “Urban renewal? We’re qualified. We’ve built up and torn down cities for 20 years,” says Harvey. “Cities everywhere are calling for artists, and it’s a blank slate there, blocks and blocks. … We want to extend the civil experiment — to see if business and art can coincide and not maim one another.”
Harvey points out that there’s been long-standing ties between Burning Man artists and to some of the private sector’s most successful executives. Its arts foundation, which distributes grants for festival projects, has received backing from everyone from real-estate magnate Christopher Bently to Mark Pincus, head of online gaming giant Zynga, as the Wall Street Journal points out. “There are a fair number of billionaires” who come to the festival every year, says Harvey, adding that some of the art is privately funded as well. In this way, Burning Man is a microcosm of San Francisco itself, stripping the bohemian artists and the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs of their usual tribal markers on the blank slate of the Nevada desert. At Burning Man, “when someone asks, ‘what do you do?’ — they meant, what did you just do” that day, he explains.
Someone ask George Lucas if we need to figure out if business and art can coincide. What Larry needs to figure out, in this time of founders transitioning out to make way for a 501(c)3 charity, is if business, Burners, Burning Man, Burners Without Borders, Black Rock Arts Foundation, and the Burning Man Project can all co-exist without maiming each other. I’m not sure they’ve figured that out at all, it’s maybe a little early to go crowing to the Capitol about it.
And what cheek in his statement that “Some of the art is privately funded”! This is real Washington DC spin. A more accurate statement would be “All of the art is privately funded by the participants. A small number of art projects get some of their funding from the party organizers“. 47 pieces this year, or not quite 1 artwork for every 1,200 participants. This year some lucky artists were also given the chance to buy tickets from the guest list.
The net result of all these donations to the foundation from billionaires? And from all the Burners who elect to make an additional donation to BRAF while they’re purchasing their tickets? Well, last year they managed to turn half a million into about $16,000. Now that’s what I call a non-profit.
Harvey then insists that BMOrg does not rule Burning Man like a nanny state. While I suppose that’s true, that doesn’t excuse any nanny-like behavior at all from the BMOrg. The whole point of the event is freedom of self-expression.
one of the festival’s mottos is, ‘You have a right to hurt yourself.’ It’s the opposite of a nanny state,” Harvey says, recounting the time a participant unsuccessfully tried to sue the festival: He had walked out onto the coals after the “man”was set on fire and, predictably, burned himself.
Larry’s ambition doesn’t stop at bringing Burning Man everywhere, all the time. He wants to be commander of the world too! You couldn’t make this stuff up…
Harvey even offers a political analogy for the countercultural festival’s success — not in terms of content, but organization. “If we can create a world that’s defined by brilliance at the top and soulful association at the bottom, you command everything in between. After all, isn’t that what Republicans did? Think tanks and grass-roots base — I’d say that’s a successful story that’s worth emulating as an example,” he says. (Harvey, who doesn’t align himself with either party, offers a similar analogy on the Democratic side to FDR and the popular support for the New Deal.)
Harvey emphasizes that he didn’t come to Washington to seek out government assistance for the festival’s fledgling 501(c)3. “We’re not asking for aid, and we’re not asking for tax breaks,” he says. Instead, Harvey and his colleagues have come to explain their organization’s expanded mission as a nonprofit organization, emphasizing that the group has always received a respectful audience in the Beltway.
…”We’re no longer so taxed in explaining that it’s not a hippie debauch,” Harvey tells me over sodas in downtown Washington. “The word has leaked out so well that everyone now wants to come.” In fact, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management that oversees the Black Rock Desert recently put the festival on probation for exceeding the land’s permitted crowd limits — a decision that organizers are now appealing.
Harvey now hopes to direct the enormous passion that Burning Man has stoked in its devotees over the years outside of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, in the U.S. and overseas — the primary focus of this week’s visit to Washington. Last year, Burning Man transitioned from a limited liability corporation into a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which organizers believed was a better way to support their activities — not just for the festival, but for outside projects and collaborations in what festival-goers often refer to as “the default world.”