Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series
The last article in this series sought to illustrate a fascinating point: that time spent in our community enhances the value of art, and that this added value can be measured in (among other things) financial returns.
This wasn’t true back in 1996 – a time when the very notion of “Burning Man art” having more than its experiential value was absurd. Much in the way people today who have never heard of Burners Without Borders or understand the Regional Network say “Burning Man’s just a party, it’s not really changing the world,” people back then said “Burning Man’s just a party, it’s not really making art.”
To be “Burning Man art” now has provenance, and even influence. To be “Burning Man art” that people recognize, and that has stories attached, brings an even greater value outside of our own community. The art market may not share all our values, but it now values what we do – and that’s something Burning Man artists can leverage.
Timeless (Matt Welter) developed a system to try to enhance both our community’s exposure to art and the value of the art it produces so as to attract patronage and funding. Another approach, grounded in the same premise, has been floating around the Burnerverse for several years (although I only heard about it a few months ago). The basic premise is that to use technology to streamline the capacity for artists and communities looking for Burning Man art to connect.
The road to-and-from Burning Man is a heroic struggle for most Burning Man artists, who not only have to create their miracles but transport them vast distances, over hostile terrain, and then (if they don’t burn them) cart them back.
It will never be convenient – but what if we could turn it into an advantage for them?
What if we could create a database that included all the locations across the United States that are potentially looking for public art displays, and the times they are likely looking? Could we transform the annual pilgrimage whereby our art goes across the United States unseen into a kind of parade for communities, festivals, and events across the country?
Now before you respond, stop for a moment and think about the magnitude of this undertaking: It sounds simple when you think of it as a technological issue, but it’s extraordinarily complicated when you think of it as a research issue. We’re talking about 50 states, dozens of large cities, hundreds of mid-size cities, thousands of small communities, and god knows how many festivals and events – on top of Burning Man community efforts. That’s a massive amount of data, and it only gets worse: to be useful, some details about who to contact, what kind of facilities they have (and when) and what they’re looking for, would be important not only to enter but then to keep track of.
(And then, if we take it outside of America, and to the world at large …)
It’s enough to make one throw up one’s hands at the prospect, asking “is it really worth it?” And in fact, there’s a version of this approach that would be much simpler: just catalogue all of the art going to Burning Man every year, and let potential venues reach out on their own.
Such an approach would be easier, but it misses the point. Two points, actually.
The first is that a database of our art rather than possible venues puts our artists in positions of passivity: they can be listed in the database, but can’t do anything except wait for the phone to ring.
But even more vitally, the only way to successfully compile a project of this scope and unusual nature, is to reach out to state agencies, local governments, regional economic development agencies – that is to say, to create new relationships where none existed before. We already have relationships with our artists: the problem is precisely that our artists don’t have relationships with the communities they have to pass through anyway.
So while the end result of this project would be a database that artists can look through to say “As long as I’m going to be around here anyway, who could I contact about getting my work displayed?” the process would be a giant outreach effort that would create new relationships and, through those relationships, open opportunities where none previously existed. If even a fraction of those relationships bear fruit, then suddenly there are new opportunities for Burning Man artists. And if some of what emerges from those relationships is successful, other people will want in.
It’s easy to imagine that there are a whole host of cities, downs, and economic improvement districts that don’t even know they want displays of big art, or Burning Man projects, because they’ve never been asked – or even imagined something like that is possible. A project like this is not only a way of getting on their radar, and creating connections, but saying “we’ve got something you might want. Here’s what we bring to the table.”
If we succeeded (and by “we” I mean Burning Man the culture, it may be a task better headed up by the Regionals or even volunteers) the migration to and from Black Rock City could be a national parade of sculptures and art installations stopping in communities everywhere. It would create new connections between artists and venues, and provide significantly increased opportunities for artists to display their work, build followings, and in some cases receive payment.
But even if we fail, if that grand parade never happens, the new relationships made could still, over time, create the exact same opportunities for artists. As is true in so many Burning Man art projects, what happens in the process of doing it can end up being even more vital than the ostensible result.
The “Fundiversify” approach appeals to patrons by noting that art gains value as it moves through our community, thus making it an investment – if it’s allowed to be a community asset. The outreach required for a technical database to become a new series of relationships creates more opportunity for that process of moving through our community to happen – and turns movement that was likely to happen anyway into greater opportunities for artists.
Once again, the goal is to create a virtuous cycle: successful demonstrations of this approach will in turn get more communities, festivals, and organizations interested in offering homes to Burning Man art, creating more success stories, and in turn more opportunities. At which point investing in such art becomes a better and better prospect – as well as a means of enhancing civic life.
Creating relationships around our art may be the best way to get such cycles in motion for our artists. We start with information about who to call.
Lead photo by John Curley