A typical scene at Burning Man in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
What's more Bay Area than Burning Man? As the yearly art happening settles into ripe old age as a non-profit, is it time to admit that it has run its course, not because it failed, but because it succeeded?
What began as a summer solstice bonfire at Baker Beach in 1986 evolved into the festival for radical self-expression known as Burning Man. Now the dust-and-desert spectacle has reorganized as the Burning Man Project, a nonprofit launched by Black Rock City LLC. The new organization will offer several outreach programs related to civic engagement, education, and the arts.
So after 27 years inculcating Bay Area culture in art, free expression, and damn good parties, is it time for the venerable institution to take a page from the superhero playbook, declaring its work done here and going off to fight new battles?
It's a thought that's occurred to some of the organization's leaders. “After 24 years of tending our garden in the desert, we now have the means to cultivate its culture worldwide,” co-founder Larry Harvey wrote on the Burning Man website.
Beyond Burning Man's desert borders, the organization is part of a global network with 220 members in 28 countries involved in civic engagement, art, and social enterprise. Members of the new nonprofit are launching efforts like Big Art For Small Towns, which brings public art installations to rural communities in Nevada, and Burners Without Borders, which facilitates international disaster relief and community initiatives through volunteerism. Burning Man also hosts an annual Global Leadership Conference in San Francisco, which brings together community leaders from around the world.
By the late '90s, as tens of thousand of Burners descended onto the playa, the festival was reorganized under the leadership of Black Rock City LLC. As the group now shifts, questions are being raised about how that entity will interact with the nonprofit board.
But perhaps the more important question is not about the organization's internal structure, but its place in the larger culture. According to Burning Man's website, the event will be "largely unaffected by this change." But as we wrote back in 2012, "the original anarchic, pyromaniacal, guns-and-ammo-with-a-side-of-performance-art desert fantasia [...] has lately been overshadowed by tech-millionaire excess and secondhand-ticket gouging."
In that sense, as a victim of its own success, Burning Man has already left the desert.
So we've got a modest proposal. Take the reorganization one step further. Move Burning Man off the playa and send it to somewhere it can have the impact it once had here. Alabama, anyone?