The Burning Man Project is now the 100% shareholder of Black Rock City, LLC, which puts on the Burning Man event. A Board of Directors of 18 people is responsible for the Burning Man Project. Founder Will Roger is the Chairman.
SherpaGate and all the attention from the New York Times and Bloomberg has highlighted Burning Man’s place on the world stage as a playground for rich people. In the past, how much money you had was never an issue at Burning Man. Nobody cared, because money did not exist in this environment. Tickets were based on Burners splitting the costs of the permit and the infrastructure for putting on the party – like a mega-version of camp dues. The art was more about amusement and light-hearted entertainment, than impressing and out-doing.
Now, ticket prices increase almost every year, new taxes get invented like the vehicle pass, directors run Commodification Camps, there are 85 registered vendors, there’s a gas station for art cars, camps get daily fresh food deliveries from beeping trucks, and a whole eco-system of businesses has popped up renting yurts, containers and RVs to Burners.
Why is Burning Man morphing from an anarchists wet dream to shark-jumping Defaultification?
Why does the Board seem to think there’s nothing wrong with directors trying to make a few bucks on the side?
Perhaps it’s because the Board are the 1% themselves.
“It’s not a thoughtless amassing of rich folks,” says Harvey of the expanded board. “But if you want to change the world, you’d better get some people who have real muscular power.” [Bloomberg]
It doesn’t look like they’re using that muscular power to Gift very much in the way of donations, but they are providing their time without drawing salaries. The average time commitment from the non-executive directors in 2013 was 2.3 hours per week. In 2013, the Burning Man Project received a total of $33,500 in donations from its 17 board members – an average of $1970. Director Chris Weitz stepped down last year and was replaced by Jim Tananbaum and Matt Goldberg, bringing the board size up to 18 .
So, can we find any 1%-er’s on the Board?
yes Chris Bently – multi-generational billion-plus family fortune, real estate, industry
yes David Walker – CEO, Nevada museum of art – former investment banker, art dealer, rock star;
yes Jim Tananbaum – CEO of $650 million VC fund, healthcare, pharamceuticals; led 21 major transactions including several with multi-billion dollar outcomes
yes Leo Villareal (NY) – multi-generational ranching family, Marfa, TX; one of world’s most successful interactive artists, Bay Lights installation: $12 million; used to work in Paul Allen’s thinktank.
yes Mercedes Martinez and Chris Weitz – although Weitz stepped down from the Board in 2014, his wife Mercedes retains her role. Hollywood producer/director: Antz, About a Boy, The Golden Compass, Twilight; $1.5 billion worldwide gross, ranked #64
yes Mike Farrah (NY) – advisor to mayors and Congressmen
yes Rae Richman – AirBnB; was Vice President, Rockefeller Philanthropy $200m/year annual giving
It sure looks like 11 of the 12 Burning Man Project “independent” directors are members of the 1%.
Perhaps I am wrong about Kay Morrison, and she is wealthy and just enjoys working in retail. I mean no offense to any of the directors by this classification, and I believe that this whole “1%” thing is bullshit anyway. Just a lame attempt to foment a class war, Burning Man with its dark army of dirtbags as the front lines of a
Marxist Cacophonist revolution.
Larry has said his mission is to reform the 1%. Another clue as to who this culture is being aimed at by its directors. He’s gone from saying “income equality is a straw man argument”, to making that same argument, and now making reinforcement of the class war his new mission.
Sherpa Beth says: “rather than re-educating the 1 Percent, the camp was only reinforcing the class divisions of the real world.”
The idea of the $17,000 Caravancicle hotel rooms being a re-education camp for the elite is amusing. For every billionaire playboy having a life changing experience and vowing to put solar panels on all his buildings and get some glowy art on the wall of his office…there will be one next door who’s just there for the coke and hookers. Do either of them want to be re-educated by the hotel’s hippie sherpa squad? I think not. Methinks some of these people have been spending too much time at Esalen – most people don’t go to an expensive hotel expecting to be told how they’re doing it wrong.
With such a well to do crew aboard the Board, booming revenues that don’t flow through to art funding, the frequent requests for donations, the lack of transparency and accountability, the deliberate use of propaganda to influence the community…is it any wonder that veteran Burners have concerns about creeping commercialization in our culture?
When BMOrg announced the “transition to a non-profit” four years ago, you could still walk into stores in San Francisco and Reno and buy tickets. The cheapest regular ticket was $222, Burners were asked to pay more if they could afford to. Since then, ticket prices have more than doubled to $459 (including fees and vehicle pass). The business has scaled up too. In 2010 Burning Man took in $13.5 million selling tickets, now their revenues are above $30 million. The more they put ticket prices up and invent new revenue streams, the more Burning Man becomes harder to attend unless you have money to burn – or work for someone who does.
Most of the world do not have money to burn on a hedonistic week long vacation, where they just give stuff away to people. Statistically speaking, Burners have a median income of US$51,000, which puts them in the 1% – in fact, the top 0.3% in the US. Another study by Cornell University says that for 2010, the required income to be part of the 1% was $322,300. 2.4% of Burners are in that range.
If the 1% are actually 2-3% of Black Rock City, then they are disproportionately represented: meaning, Burning Man “skews rich”. With a Board composed of 1%ers, on a mission to reform the 1% by bringing new virgins in to Burning Man for acculturation, it seems like that this number is only going to grow along with the ticket prices.
If more wealth = more art and more gifting, then that’s great news. Come all ye wealthy, and gift us yer offerings. What’s more of a concern is if it means a move away from Radical Self-Reliance and Decommodification towards a more Vegas-style party experience, models on molly locked out of reach of the masses behind wristbands and velvet ropes. I’m not knocking Vegas in particular, we live in a world full of superclubs and there’s a lot of fun to be had in them – especially if you have the right wristbands. Whether a $2000 minimum spend VIP table is more fun than a $500 one is beside the point – it’s all excessive, but also all relative. I think nothing of buying a coffee at Starbucks, and in the same way Bill Gates thinks nothing of spending $5 million for a week on someone else’s yacht.
I believe Burning Man has always offered something unique and different from the default world divisions of cash and class. People are expressing themselves freely in a money-free environment. It’s about art, a playful spirit, and entertaining each other. It should stay that way.
If you’re at a place of freedom trying to have a good time and forget about money, you don’t want to witness safari tourists having a row over their wheelie luggage, or a disgruntled Popsicleer wondering why his Mistress of Merriment wandered off, a sherpa being castigated by their boss, or the princess upset with her handmaiden because her personal porcelain toilet got dirty. These are interactions that would be appalling to witness in the Default world, and are doubly jarring in an environment supposed to be about freedom. In Defaultia they usually happen behind closed doors. There are far fewer closed doors at Burning Man, everyone lives very close to their neighbors. Lately the neighbors of many Commodification Camps have been complaining.
People say “it’s fine, I don’t even see it” – OK, then let’s just say “it’s fine”. It’s either in or out. If it’s allowed then allow it, if it’s not allowed then it shouldn’t be happening. And most definitely, members of the Board of Directors should not be selling hotel rooms in their camp. If they’re going to, then let everyone do that. Stop Selective Rule Enforcement.
It seems almost bizarre that Larry Harvey is trying to conflate the Commodification Camp Controversy with the issues behind the #occupy movement. It’s quite a stretch. “People have been frustrated by Wall Street’s blatant financial crimes with nobody going to jail, so Burning Man’s directors should be able to hire 50 sherpas for their ComCamp”. This is a non sequitur.
The issue is not how much money any Burners have or don’t have. It’s Commodification – of people, when money puts one bound into the service of another. We’re trying to achieve the opposite of that at Burning Man. Liberation. Manumission. Defaultification – bringing more and more of the Default world into the Nevada Burn – is not going to make Burning Man better. So should we just make Burning Man worse, because it’s so important to bring 40% virgins in? Or should we reconsider some of these goals? Couldn’t we still make it better with just 20% virgins every year?
Radical inclusion shouldn’t mean “we let any dickhead in the gate, so Burners now have to guard their camps from criminals”. It shouldn’t mean “we don’t care if our friends can’t get tickets, but friends of board members can get all the tickets they want”. It should mean “anyone can be a Burner, if they bother to learn our culture”. Placed camps should provide a strong interactive component, and Commodification Camp producers should encourage their clientele to participate and contribute art. If you must sell a room in your camp for thousands of dollars, then re-cycle some of that money back into the community by supporting art projects directly.
Does the rise of the sherpa class mean that impecunious Burners now have a chance to go to Burning Man, because they can take a job there? Shouldn’t you be able to work at Burning Man if you want to and need the money? What about people who want to live Burning Man “year round”? Shouldn’t we be encouraging them, with opportunities for paid work on art projects? Isn’t the enablement of art more important than its destruction?
If we must have sherpas, then perhaps there’s a way to limit their impact, while still doing some good for the overall community. What if sherpas required a special ticket? The number of these tickets could be limited, and the premium price charged for them could be passed on to the volunteer workers in DPW and other departments who build the city. Let the volunteers choose whether they want to take the money, or Gift it to art projects or the Burning Man Project. Just like 4000 pre-sale tickets at $800 subsidize 4000 low-income tickets at $190, the surplus from 4000 sherpa tickets at $800 would provide $410 each to 4000 volunteer workers – or $10,000 art grants to an additional 164 projects .
Maybe it’s time to change “Decommodification” to mean “no logos” instead of “no commerce”.
Bloomberg seems to get it:
Camp Caravancicle was not the first of its kind, and over the last few years many fervent Burners have come to believe such accommodations are covertly commercial, unfairly gobble up many of the event’s limited number of tickets, and violate various Burning Man principles, such as participation and radical self-reliance
Pretty straightforward. Nothing to do with Wall Street, class war, or ebola virus. Bloomberg seem to be presenting the facts without any spin, which is refreshing. Check out their 5-minute video story.
Does Larry Harvey get it? Is it about what he wants, or what WE want?:
“I want to convince people that it isn’t as if the 1 Percent represents an evil bacillus that like Ebola will sweep through our city,” he says. “That’s not possible. Much of the anger is because of a feeling of impotency. The whole issue of the 1 Percent has been a matter of public discourse for some time now, and nothing has changed. People are frustrated. … My mission is to reform the 1 Percent.”
On Facebook at the Sherpa Liberation Front, Milkman Amok says:
The gardener says his mission is to reform the 1%. No offense to gardeners everywhere, but I think he’s out of his league. A noble goal to be sure, but that ambitious intention doesn’t seem to have worked out catering to Jim Tananbaum
He has a point. This “landscape gardener turned party promoter wants to make billionaires change their ways” story is eerily reminiscent of the classic Peter Sellers movie Being There.
Or maybe the Lawnmower Man:
It sure is starting to look dystopian. A plutocratic techno dictatorship, operating in secrecy while collecting profiles on all of its citizens; fuelling its growth with mind-bending drugs, social media, and celebrity endorsements.
Who gave Larry this reformation mission, anyway?
Burners seem to get it.
Macmikem: A group I knew was told to GO AWAY you are not part of our CAMP. This, from some tard at Tannabuam’s circle jerk.
thalassicus : I was in a bar in Venice for Superbowl Sunday and struck up a conversation with a girl who ended up being another “Sherpa.” She actually camped with Lost Hotel and part of her work was the setup/teardown of Caravancicle. She says that the Lost Hotel people are currently being sued by Tananbaum for breach of a 3 year contract (sadly, a lot of the gear of the sherpas is being held in limbo in the process). If that’s true, it seems Mr. Apologetic board member is still very much at a loss as to what Burning Man is about.
marssaxman: the problem is not the money, the problem is that Burning Man is fundamentally about amateurism and DIY. Nobody cares that you’re an accountant in real life, on the playa you can be a bartender. Nobody cares that you’re a diesel mechanic in real life, on the playa you can glam it up and strut your stuff like a model. Nobody cares that you’re a software engineer in real life, on the playa you can sweat your ass off building a twenty foot tower with a bunch of searchlights powered by bicycle generators and people will go hey, wow, that’s ART. And you get to be an artist.
This is revolutionary and awesome and an irreplaceable part of what has made Burning Man special and worth going back to and investing so much time and money in.
The problem with the turnkey camps is less that they are inhabited by rich people full of money and more that they cart in all the limitations of the real world along with them and thereby devalue amateur enthusiasm. Instead of destroying real-world roles and limitations and economic structures, they’re bringing them along into BRC and thereby changing the character of the event. If half the art cars roaming around are built by pros with budgets, how can a DIY team possibly measure up? And if it’s no longer possible for a bunch of random friends to get together and build something in their back yards and bring it out to the desert and get the amazing rush when everyone else goes “wow”, what is the point of this whole thing anymore?
It’s not the rich people, it’s the abandonment of the amateur philosophy and the DIY ethic that makes the turnkey camps such a corrosive influence on the awesomeness of the burn.
solaronzim: I would say even DIY with big budgets is okay as long as everyone is getting involved. I say this because it isn’t about competition. It’s about expression. And what the great larry was quoted saying about manners is spot on. In my eyes its rude that every camp on esplanade plays music at levels that damage hearing. That used to be limited to 10 and 2. Its rude that you won’t serve certain people. Its rude that you treat people doting on you as servants. I have friends on billionaires road that make art, contribute to the party, don’t exclude everyone, and pick up after themselves. Oh and they have help too, but theyre also our friends. So we all party together. Imagine that.
markday:“Wealth” covers a lot of ground in the vaguest of ways, but the notion that “Jim Tananbaum has become the Google Bus of Burning Man” squarely and concisely nails a narrative that’s a fairly hot button issue in the Bay Area. Does that resentment tangibly exist in the Bay Area? Yes. Does a similar tension exist around the notion of concierge camps? Yes. Are journalists often looking for parallels…?
For, say, the business press, the notion that BM is actively courting “influential” board members, from the venture capital/start up world, is part of a larger narrative that they already report on, and I’m not sure what alternative reporting would look like : “Burning Man is an event that most attendees agree you can’t really understand until you’ve been there, and as it turns out, some attendees have been paying employees to do their dirty work for them, which is against the spirit of the experience that you can’t really understand unless you’ve been there, but take our word for it, people who have been there are not happy with this, and while the people in question are “wealthy and influential”, that’s not the issue, so much as it is that they hired some people, they’d be equally annoyed if some no-names from not-the-Bay Area had turned up with a small catering crew, and…. um…. wait a minute, why are we covering this again?”
I generally agree that “radical inclusiveness, man!” is a weak-sauce shield in this instance, and that a lot of people’s unhappiness is not about wealth per se. But I think a reasonable reading of that article would include the implicit notion that VIP wrist bands are frowned upon, that it was a shit-show of a camp, and so on: “Instead of a spirit of inclusiveness and harmony, Lillie says she found herself in an environment dedicated foremost to protecting the VIP status of its wealthy inhabitants. Paying guests were outfitted with wristbands like patrons in an exclusive nightclub.”
It may be the case that these tensions are not about money, but the ability to pay for these kind of things at a highly visible/exclusionary level is certainly fueling tension in a way that “some guy two camps over got gifted a ticket in return for driving the truck, then found out people expected him to be the designated sober art car driver all night, and that was never talked about up front….” hypothetically goes unnoticed. Not disagreeing with other people’s points here, but it’s “better reporting than I’d have expected.” I’d liked to have seen more commentary from people like Tex Allen (disclosure : I know Tex), but all in all, it covered a lot of ground.
“and…. um…. wait a minute, why are we covering this again?”
I think that you nailed this. The income inequality is a really hot button issues in national discourse, and writing this story in that perspective is probably a lot more relevant to people who don’t go to burning man. Taking off my burner hat for a second, and putting on my journalist hat (I am not a journalist) that is pretty clear. “A couple of rich guys went to a party in the desert, acted like assholes, and left a mess” is not a story worthy of Bloomberg.
But putting my burner hat back on I think that we need to emphasize that this doesn’t need to be talked about just in terms of identity politics, but about community behavior.
Yes, the problems are about money (at least some of them), but that doesn’t mean that the problems are about wealth or opulence. They are about behavior.
In the default world having money means that you get to treat people as things or as means to things. Not being able to spend money at burning man historically has given it’s participants a brief window where that dynamic is put in it’s head.
What the community is finding offensive is that rather then bringing 1%ers to burning man, 1%ers have been systemically allowed to bring defaultia to burning man.
But money is like water on pavement, it always find the cracks. And the BMorg’s new board is apparently a big fucking crack. They expanded the board from 6 to 18 people (I think, correct me if I’m wrong). I don’t know how they chose their new board members, but if it’s anything like other non-profits that I have known, those seats are given to large donors.
doctor-yes: I have a friend who was in that camp, and I didn’t realize it until after we got back from the Burn this year He had a great time, but he also stayed with Jim’s camp in 2013 – his first time on the playa, and he was only there for 3 days. He’s comfortable but not wealthy enough to afford the cost, and I believe it was gifted enough to him both years. So the only experience he’s ever had at Burning Man is in these highly-catered camps. He spoke highly of the Mistresses of Merriment his first year, for instance, which made me cringe internally, but I didn’t draw a line between the two until post-Burn this year.
The problem to me is that the camp appeared to do nothing to acculturate newcomers, instead allowing them to be pampered and experience BM from behind the velvet rope. I don’t think it’s even about what some of the guests themselves expect. My friend, for instance, had no idea what to expect. This was just how Burning Man was from his experience.
After I gently talked to him about it, I discovered he’d had no idea it was potentially controversial. He only discovered it after the fact. He’s an older guy (65+) but is constantly going to concerts of all kinds, music festivals, etc, and is very cool to hang out with. Not the kind of douchebag you might think exclusively inhabits these camps.
That’s just one person of course, and I haven’t tried to press him too much for details to avoid embarrassing him further, but I just wonder how much blame we can put on the participants in the camp (and whatever expectations they had) vs. the organizers of it, who framed the entire event for birgins in the camp through the lens they chose.
Larry Harvey admits that he didn’t do anything to acculturate external members of the Project Board, so I guess Tananbaum just paid the cluelessness forward.
Burners may also be interested in this site: tananburn.me