Is Burning Man going communal or selling out?

Pub date April 6, 2011
SectionPolitics Blog

“Man on the move,” the headline I gave to my current Guardian article and an extended personal blog post on the announcement that Burning Man will next month form a nonprofit group to eventually run the event, raises a number of interesting issues that are likely to be vigorously debated within this huge, active burner community in the coming months and years.

How should Burning Man be governed? What is the event worth – if it can even be quantified – and who created and should benefit from that value? Are Black Rock City LLC board members being selfless stewards of the culture in giving up control or are they being greedy control freaks in holding on for six more years and expecting a big payoff in the end? Or, like much about this dynamic culture, is the truth somewhere in the middle?

Event founder Larry Harvey’s big announcement last week, made during a speech that was unusual for its insights into the thoughts and internal dynamics of the BRC board, stressed how to value an event whose central ethos opposes such commodification.

“I thought it was time the owners stepped out from behind the veil of secrecy,” Harvey told me during a follow-up interview this week. He repeatedly emphasizes the benevolence of a corporate board voluntarily giving up control over its assets and revenue stream. “What we’re doing, as far as normal capitalism, is aberrant…What we’re doing is giving up a lot of money.”

But the way that Harvey is trying to frame this issue seems antithetical to how most burners see the event and culture that they’ve spent decades helping to create, from using the term “owners” to describe the six board members to suggesting Burning Man has any relation to “normal capitalism,” even to the claim that there’s “a lot of money” to give up, and that they might be more entitled to that money than the thousands of burners who have contributed their sweat equity to the event.

“We have people who have 10,000 volunteer hours at Burning Man,” says Chicken John Rinaldi, a longtime burner and critic of how Harvey and the board have run the event, believing that they have always overstated their importance considering Black Rock City is built each year almost entirely by its participants. “This event throw itself.”

Yet Harvey and the other board members, such as Michael Mikel and Marian Goodell, insist that the board plays an important role in shepherding the event and the culture that has grown up around it, which is why they plan on waiting three years to turn control of the event over to the new nonprofit, the Burning Man Project, and another three years after that until they liquidate their ownership of the name and associated trademarks and are paid for their value.

“We want it to get on its feet and be able to raise money on its own,” Harvey said of the nonprofit. The board is also creating a committee called the Philosophical Center “to ensure the cultural continuity as we pour Burning Man into a new vessel.” Mikel said he insisted on that because “for me, it’s not about the art. It’s really about the culture.”

The nonprofit board will be comprised of the six LLC board members and at least seven more members that those six members will select, and Harvey said they are doing interviews now, including talking to many longtime burners who were represented at last week’s summit of Burning Man regional leaders from around the world. Chicken said it was offensive that Harvey would tell this gathering that it would take six years before they’d have full control over Burning Man.

“What they’re saying is it’s going to take years to pass the torch over, and they’re saying this to a room full of people who have been involved in Burning Man for decades,” Chicken said. He was particularly critical of Harvey’s statement that the board discussed coming up with a value for Burning Man and dividing that by six. “Once that comes out of someone’s mouth, the bets are off.”

Chicken’s conclusion: “They’ve turned Burning Man into a commodity. They’re selling the event.”

Burning Man doesn’t have much by way of assets now, and its roughly $12 million annual revenue stream from selling tickets goes almost entirely to staging the annual event and supporting the year-round operations of the organization.

But once the nonprofit forms up and starts taking tax-exempt donations and finding other ways of diversifying its revenue stream for the three years before the current board members cash out, Chicken predicts the board members will walk away with about $1 million each. “But I’m not going to let them get away with it,” pledged Chicken, who has already starting agitating and rabble-rousing in online forums, just as he did in 2004 when he launched the rebellion that became known as Borg2.

Harvey has confirmed the board members will walk away with well more than the $20,000 that they’re currently entitled to if they resign, “but we’ll have to work for a living,” he said. Mikel told me, “It’s never been about the money, for me it was there was no succession plan. I really want Burning Man to continue beyond my involvement with it.”

Yet they also said that the bitter divisions on the board have evaporated since the new plan was developed. “Now that we can all see the future,” Mikel said, “we’re getting along wonderfully.”

But Chicken says he’s determined not to let these six board members, who have been getting the highest salaries for the last six years anyway “simply for ordering the PortaPotties,” profit from an event he helped created that has always been been about communal effort and decommidified relationships.

“Burning Man should be a labor of love,” he said. “I think Burning Man should exist outside of commerce.”

Guardian City Editor Steven T. Jones is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.

Photos of Larry Harvey from April 1 speech by

Ana Grillo Photography and Multimedia Productions