Burning Man’s Cancelled, But Not Cancelled: Let’s Live It Up

Rosie von Lila
10 min readApr 11, 2020

I was surprised that I cried when I heard the news. Front and center, I became present to what a consistent presence Burning Man has been in the world for 35 years, and in my life for 21 years. I thought of my friends who work at the headquarters in San Francisco — brilliant people I know and love, who work with immense dedication and passion. In recent years, Burning Man has employed nearly 1,000 people¹ and catalyzed approximately 10,000 volunteers² annually. I thought of the peril of an enterprise managing $47 million in revenue suddenly seeing the source of 80% of that revenue vaporize³ — if there is no event⁴, there is no ticket revenue. If there is no revenue, what happens to my friends and their livelihoods?

“The mission of Burning Man Project is to facilitate and extend the culture that has issued from the Burning Man event into the larger world.”

Burning Man⁵ brings “experiences to people in grand, awe-inspiring, and joyful ways that lift the human spirit, address social problems, and inspire a sense of culture, community, and civic engagement.”⁶ The history of Burning Man is well documented⁷, and for the sake of brevity I will save you an overview and summarize succinctly with: Burning Man and the people who generate it (that’s hundreds of thousands of people around the world) have made a massive contribution to human culture over the last 35 years. The original event in the desert is an annual “pilgrimage of sorts” that welcomes everyone, and which has given birth to a global network of events⁸ created by a diversity of human beings who value⁹ generosity, participation (through both self-expression and civic engagement), and creativity.

“Burner (noun): a citizen of the worldview that is Burning Man. May be encountered everywhere.”

Burning Man landed on my radar in 1999, and in 2000 I became a first-time participant. A dozen years of attending went by before it occurred to me that I could work for the organization behind the event. The company (and its legion of staff and volunteers) does its job well by blending in at the event (where “everyone is a participant”) — it generates the minimal amount of infrastructure required for tens of thousands of “Black Rock City citizens” to collaboratively create an ephemeral metropolis of their collective imagination. Working with Burning Man is an extraordinary experience. The culture and the company are a magnet for outstanding talent. I took for granted the pleasure of working with so many women in leadership, and so many empowering men working in partnership with empowered women. Half of the six founders of Burning Man are women. Burning Man has nineteen board members, eight of whom are women.¹⁰ 54% of the nearly 120 person staff at HQ are women. When it comes to employee compensation, women are at the top. Of the 15 leadership positions publicly reported annually, women hold the most senior staff positions and the top four highest paid positions. Pretty outstanding for “that thing in the desert” originally catalyzed by three bohemian guys on the fringe of society.¹¹ And with so many women in leadership and capable team members, it’s no wonder the event went from almost going extinct in the post-1996 event aftermath to being the far-reaching enterprise and cultural juggernaut it is today.¹²

What stands out in my mind is the frequency of crises the Burning Man organization has responded to over the decades. Covid-19 is yet another opportunity for the global community to learn and adapt together. For many of his last years, Larry Harvey would remark, “The future of Burning Man is in the Regional Network.” The founder of Burning Man knew that the power of the culture would neither be contained nor restrained by a centralized event. He observed how the experience of free expression in neighborly community brings people alive in ways they fall passionately in love with, and how that spark carries across borders to countries and communities around the world. While many Burners are right now experiencing the grief of losing in this year a particular experience we love and value and that brings us more alive, Covid-19 is giving us the gift of experimentation with something Larry’s prescience portended. The Burning Man website home page has been updated and there is an inspiring, graceful and courageous announcement by CEO and Founder Marian Goodell, who so powerfully shares with us, “Burning Man is not cancelled… We are not defined by one aspect of Burning Man. We are defined by what we bring to Burning Man… I am here to tell you that we will not be collaborating on Black Rock City in the desert this year… We look forward to inviting you to come to the Virtual Burning Man.”

In the last four weeks, more than 17 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits.¹³ This is unprecedented economic territory. Black Rock City going virtual this year, and the subsequent loss of revenue, makes Burning Man the first sizable organization I’m truly close to that is facing financial ramifications regarding its staff. And it’s not only staff. It’s also the artists. And outside of the Burning Man organization, there is an entire international ecosystem of Burners who are losing their income as the result of the necessary #stayhome measures to break the virus transmission chain of Covid-19. What are WE, we together as a community, going to do?

Larry taught me the phrase, “Here’s what we know…” So, Here’s What We Know:

1. We know that Burners are some of the most resilient, adaptive, creative, community-oriented people around the world.

2. We know that Burners are generous and caring.

3. We know Burners can get stuff done, particularly in times of crises — remember when Hurricane Katrina happened during the Burning Man event and what that led to, anyone?¹⁴

4. We know that Burning Man is led by courageous, passionate leaders and managers who thrive in chaos.

5. We know that financial resources abound in many pockets of the Burning Man network.

6. We know that we won’t let the Burning Man organization go the way of the dodo. We refuse that option in this multiverse, thank you very much. We are too creative, too collectively powerful, too resourceful, too connected and we care too much to let that happen.

What is needed now is operating capital. Given the loss of revenue, I don’t see how Burning Man Project continues to exist without an emergency injection of cash. It is here that I appeal to the Burner patrons of Black Rock City arts and culture who can give large financial gifts: Please be in conversation with the leadership and Philanthropic Engagement team. Or make a contribution through the Burning Man website. The world needs Burning Man. And Burning Man needs YOU. We must financially power the team that supports the entire global Regional Network, plus the technology operations team, and the communications team, along with the core administrative teams. We must generate the capital to support the critical operations that will keep our global community connected, and engaging during this time of physical separation when our efforts are needed to organize our local communities in doing things like support front line medical workers all over the world. Burner-style civic engagement is needed NOW in every country to #flattenthecurve. I am sure the chief strategists within Burning Man HQ have already set the wheels in motion; as I said, the leadership is savvy at handling crises and really effective at making things work. But (once again, as so many times in prior decades) we’ve never been here before. And it’s going to take all of us pitching in. If you are reading this and know well-heeled Burners, please share this appeal with them. If you have the means, please contribute.

In 1997, Law Enforcement seized the gate ticket revenues at the event, which left the organizers with no money to pay the bills. Larry, seeing something remarkable had to be done, stood on a hay bale and gave a speech, which you can read here. (It’s one of my favorite speeches by him.) People who had already paid to get in the event were asked to give money to keep Burning Man alive. Of the many memorable things he said in that speech, one of the most moving was this: “So we’re making a plea, because…no one else is going to help us right now. I don’t think there’s an angel in the wings, really. I think… if there are any angels present… if there are any angels present they are among us.” And those angels did give, because Burning Man meant something to them and they wanted to see it continue.

We’re in this together. Here’s how I’m getting involved: 1. I invested the time to write this to connect with you and spread the word of what’s happening; 2. You can count on me to be having this conversation. You can count on me to be on the front line (as a volunteer) making connections, making requests, and bringing dollars in the door. Will you join me in taking action? Will you share this appeal with ten friends? Share the updated Burning Man home page with all social groups you’re on? Give a financial contribution?

Today, we are two weeks away from the two-year anniversary of Larry’s passing. I think he would have felt very alive during this uncertain time and would have been curious about what will happen next. I think he would have been eager to discover, “What will Burners create now?” After all that has happened, after all this time, if he were here I think he would have confidence that we will make it through this, intact and likely renewed. #ThanksLarry

Footnotes

[1] According to the 2018 IRS Form 990, Burning Man employed 946 people that year, including seasonal staff. https://burningman.org/network/about-us/public-documents/ Year-round HQ staff number approximately 120. https://burningman.org/network/about-us/people/year-round-staff/

[2] Burning Man 2018 IRS Form 990: https://burningman.org/network/about-us/public-documents/2018-form-990/

[3] Ibid.

[4] The annual Burning Man event in Nevada, USA takes place the week before Labor Day, and is also known as Black Rock City or “BRC,” and “That Thing In The Desert” or “TTITD”.

[5] “Burning Man” is used here synonymously with “Burning Man Project,” the 501(c)3 non-profit parent organization of the annual Burning Man event.

[6] Burning Man 2018 Annual Report https://annualreport2018.burningman.org/

[7] Myriad historical resources have been produced over the years by Burning Man headquarters, the Burning Man founders, and scores of community members who have lived and studied Burning Man culture for years. Some recommended resources are: Burning Man Interactive Timeline https://burningman.org/timeline/; Burning Man Founders’ Voices through the Philosophical Center — I highly recommend the writings “Larry Harvey: The Man Under The Hat” at https://burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/founders-voices/ and the video archive at https://burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/founders-voices/videos/; a variety of academic essays studying the phenomenon of Burning Man can be found at https://burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/academics/.

[8] Through the community-generated Burning Man Regional Network, in 2019 Burners around the world created more than 130 regional events (81 US domestic, and 56 international) in nearly 60 countries. In the U.S., regional events are created by local Burners across 46 states. There is also an international cyberspace event called Burn2, created in the virtual world of Second Life.

https://regionals.burningman.org/regionals/ April 2020.

[9] It is often said that Burners are united by shared values. The Burning Man 10 Principles, written by Larry Harvey in 2004 to support the demand for Burning Man-inspired events in regions across the world, describe the culture that issues from the Burning Man event. They are not prescriptive. They are descriptive. They do not prescribe how to live. They describe the ingredients for creating experiences that foster the culture born out of the original event and since replicated across the globe — a culture that has led to greater freedom of expression and human flourishing. https://burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/10-principles/

[10] https://burningman.org/network/about-us/people/board-of-directors/

[11] There were three “founding phases” of Burning Man: In 1986 Larry Harvey built a sculpture with his friend Jerry James and they burned it on a beach in San Francisco. In 1990, the event was moved to Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada and was organized by primarily by Larry Harvey, Michael Mikel (and the Cacophony Society) and John Law. In 1996, the event experienced a well-reported anarchistic meltdown; the next year it was founded as an early iteration of Black Rock City LLC with the founders Larry Harvey, Michael Mikel, Harley K. Dubois, Will Roger, Crimson Rose, and Marian Goodell who together developed the company infrastructure, year-round communications, Regionals Network and event operations that scaled the event from 10,000 people in 1996 to a sold-out event of nearly 80,000 people.

[12] The Smithsonian American Art Museum wrote: “Both a cultural movement and an annual event, Burning Man remains one of the most influential phenomena in contemporary American art and culture.” https://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/burning-man

[13] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/09/66-million-americans-filed-unemployed-last-week-bringing-pandemic-total-over-17-million/

[14] When the hurricane hit, we heard about it in Black Rock City. Given we were survival camping (albeit in fabulous costumery), a group of intrepid Burners packed up their shipping containers, tools, trucks and RVs and headed south. They caused more than $1 million worth of demolition and debris removal. Their efforts led to the creation of Burners Without Borders, which is now a program of Burning Man’s civic engagement initiatives. https://www.burnerswithoutborders.org/

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Rosie von Lila

Causing human flourishing. www.vonlila.com. Board Member. Public equities trader. Advisor to Burning Man.