Making Patronage Work for Us: Recognizing That Our Community Creates Value

Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series

Read a summary of the series so far.


Before we talk about 21st century art funding models, let’s talk for a moment about 20th century culture jamming. Specifically the Billboard Liberation Front.

If you’re not familiar with the BLF, they were an underground organization established by Burning Man co-founder John Law, who worked with a cadre of Cacophonists (including current Burning Man Education Director Stuart Mangrum) to humorously (and illegally) transform the advertising on billboards into anti-consumerist messages.

You can view their work here (and you should):

John used to not admit his affiliation with the BLF because he was in fact committing crimes that he could be charged with, and any public statements could have been used as evidence against him. But recently he told me that the statute of limitations for those crimes has passed, so the muzzle has come off.

But had he been charged in court, he said, he had an ironic defense prepared: his research has shown that in fact the activities of the BLF did not reduce sales or publicity for the products they turned into subversive, anti-capitalist messages – in fact they increased both those things. The attention their anti-consumerist messages generated also generated attention to the brands which had been hijacked. Far from committing a crime, the BLF – Law said he is prepared to argue – actually added value.

Now I haven’t looked at Law’s data (and I don’t have that kind of time), but we all certainly know that something like this is possible. (If you don’t believe me, read your Adorno.)

John was a little embarrassed by this, but the point isn’t that the uptick in publicity that the BLF’s activities generated undermined its anti-consumerist messaging. On the contrary, these pranks are still too scandalous for companies to accept as part of their branding, and remain inspirational prank-art to this day. It’s that the conflict between the two worldviews that were happening in that moment was a productive conflict: generating more for each side than it could have gotten independently.

Fast forward from the old days of the BLF to last month’s Global Leadership Conference, where Burning Man’s Philosophical Center presented on the issues emerging in the “Art, Money, and the Renaissance” series. Afterwards person after person approached me, saying “I feel like I’ve been waiting for this ever since I became a Burner. I’m a business owner” (or an entrepreneur, or capitalist) “and I know that Burning Man accepts me – Radical Inclusion – but I have no idea how to bring what I do to this community in a helpful, legitimate way. I’m looking for guidance.”

And the truth is that we don’t have definitive answers for that – this is very much a work in progress – but we believe that the first place to look is in the ways that we can make the tension between Burning Man and consumer capitalist values productive, rather than destructive.

The idea for such an approach has been present for some time. In his 2013 essay “Commerce & Community: distilling philosophy from a cup of coffee,” Larry Harvey quotes extensively from an email written by Kansas Regional Contact Zay Thompson, and it’s worth quoting – at length – again here:

“On my community’s Yahoo group, we’ve been talking about the intersection of commerce and community. What is the nature of the relationship between the two? As one person pointed out, it is natural to view people as a resource, as a means to an end, when operating in a system of commerce. I think it’s okay to take this view as long as you can step out of the commercial context and realize that there are other dimensions to people, other values, and other ways of interacting. Commerce is okay if we simultaneously view the world in the context of other values that affect our attitude towards commerce.

Let me use a personal example to illustrate my point. When my family plays our annual Thanksgiving soccer game I view the family members on the opposing team as opponents to be defeated. In that context, my classification of them is natural and appropriate. That view is the true nature of our temporary relationship in the context of the game. They are people with the capacity to physically compete with me. Yet, I should always be ready to view my family members in other contexts. If my Dad stumbles and falls, I don’t run over him in my rush to score on his team. My love for him and the value of human life causes me to suspend the game, help him up, and check to see if he’s alright. Likewise, I don’t continue to view my family as mere competition after the game is over. Thus far, I think we’re on the same page with community conditioning competition and vice versa.


So what is the proper relationship between commerce and community? I think that real value of both commerce and community can be simultaneously created from the same event. I think this creation can happen without one value system being used merely as a means to sustain the other. This ideal is possible because commerce and community have peripheral effects that can be translated into value for each other. Think of all the stuff we end up buying to bring out to Black Rock City! All that stuff is purchased for use at the event and then transformed by our relationship to one another.

To return to the soccer game example, playing soccer is fun and strengthens our family ties. But we only have fun if we play by the rules and authentically compete. A peripheral effect of the game’s value system is used to support family value. Likewise, if I want to play soccer, I have to find enough people willing to form teams and compete without killing each other. Our family love and size assures me that I can achieve this. If we start hating each other, then folks will stomp off and the teams will fall apart, meaning the end of the game. In other word, a peripheral effect of our family value system is used to support game value.

And this is not a corrupt or artificial relationship! Producing a competitive soccer game is not the goal of family. Producing family love is not the goal of soccer. Yet, each value system benefits indirectly and peripherally from the other. Neither value system’s end goals are sacrificed, and thus both benefit from each other without corruption. My view is that the relationship must create value in terms of both commerce and community. If there is a communal investment, it must be for communal value. If there is a commercial investment, it must be for commercial value. If there is an investment of both, it must be for value in terms of both.

So, I think one of the major goals in bringing our culture to the default world should be to show society how to simultaneously value commerce and community and not corrupt the two. Let community and commerce do their thing freely and naturally within their own contexts. When they exist in an organic rather than a corrupt or artificial relationship, they’ll naturally benefit each other.”

What could that look like in practice? One Burner out of Nevada has proposed a model. We can’t speak to the soundness of his personal use of it – and as with John Law I haven’t conducted a review of his numbers – but the idea seems like it combines Burning Man’s approach to community with a keen sense of how business works in a way that generates more art, and supports our community, while paying both artists and investors on a new scale.

The central insight of the approach by “Timeless” (Mathew Welter) is that the value of art is enhanced by its presence in our community. That the more a piece of art is seen and engaged with by our community – at Burning Man, at Regionals, and at community and public events – the greater its likely sale value.

Thus Timeless’ system (which he calls Fundiversify – you can read his own description here) creates a model of patronage that emphasizes the civic use of art as an investment tool. This generates value for the art – and larger potential payoffs for the artists – while creating opportunities for art engagement that otherwise wouldn’t happen.

In essence the system works like this: a patron sponsors the creation of an art piece to begin as a playa artifact (in Timeless’ case, a large wooden sculpture), under the condition that it will then be left in the artist’s care for a significant period of time to be used at community and public events. Only after that time can the piece be turned over to the patron, an on-going display stipend negotiated, or  sold.

This is as good for the artist as it is for the investor: it allows the artist to showcase their work with the piece itself, not just photographs in a portfolio. It allows the artist more opportunities to get press for themselves and their work. It allows the artist to earn additional revenues from the piece by bringing it to different venues and events. It keeps the work maintained and well looked after because, as Timeless notes, “nobody knows how to take care of these pieces better than the artists who build them.” And it raises the sale price up over time, which gives the artist a better chance of earning large commissions in the future.

“There’s nothing that we own that’s more likely to be worth more in 10 years than our art,” Timeless said – which means that there is a strong hook for people who have the kind of money to invest in art that remains within the community.

One might think at first (I did) that this would end up giving potential patrons too much control over the art creation process – that yes, they would let the art stay in the community for a prolonged period of time, which is great, but that they would demand that the artist design things explicitly to increase their value over time, rather than following their creative inspiration.

However, Timeless says that in his experience, it’s just the opposite: that once an artist starts receiving big commissions to create pieces, the artist is far more financially independent and able to follow their muse for future projects.

“It’s liberated me as an artist to be able to express myself,” Timeless says, recalling that before having this kind of support he funded his first art-installation by remortgaging his home. “I basically use the money from sales to fund my next pieces, and then if I get an investor for them, great, but they’re what I want to do, the impetus is all mine.” Once he has a history of selling pieces for a noticeable profit, investors will want a piece of what he’s going to do, and he can tell anyone who wants to push him in another direction that they can keep their money. He can even go it alone if he wants to, which is the ultimate freedom.

In essence, it creates a virtuous cycle: The value that initially attracts the investor/patron is produced by our culture and its community, and the act of supporting our culture and community creates other kinds of value – relationships that can be formed, connections that can be made, and perhaps even the commissioning of art for the community’s sake rather than just as an investment.

If this works, it could be a whole new approach to financial independence for big artists – and I also wonder if it couldn’t be taken even further. Timeless began his experiment with a more conventional patron – a single person looking for an art piece that would be worth more money than he put into it over time. But if Fundiversify works, why couldn’t it be opened to groups of smaller investors?

Most of us can’t afford to cover the cost of a large-scale playa art piece. But if an artist whose work is known to the community were to put out a call for investors along the terms Fundiversify offers – “I am planning to build a piece like this, and will commit to sharing it with the community for a period of years before selling it, and you will get a share of the profits based on your investment” – why couldn’t smaller investors join in to a kind of mutual fund, receiving their share of the proceeds when the piece finally sells?

This seems to me like a win-win: it is a way Burners can directly support artists to bring art to our community, and a way artists can get more money to do what they want to do without having to worry about a single investor making demands that impinge on their creative process. If it works at least as often as not, it also expands the pool of potential supporters for Burning Man style big art.

This has the added advantage of creating more of a community around each new piece of art – it’s a way for more people to get involved and develop a relationship with artists, which is at the heart of the kind of matronage we want to develop.

Once again, a virtuous cycle.

Timeless is also hoping to expand and attract advisers to Fundiversify by developing an administrative body to help support future projects –  to attract investors, help with transportation costs, maintain and housing equipment and supplies, and even volunteer help for set-up. But while we’ll hope for its success, his doesn’t have to be the only one. Others could set such bodies up regionally, or anywhere artists congregate. Timeless explicitly considers this a system that should be open to anyone who wants to engage with it. “I’m hoping everybody can benefit,” he said.

Fundiversify doesn’t represent a whole new way to think about arts and arts funding. But it does recognize that many of Burning Man arts’ organic virtues – its emphasis on community and community-based art – are also valuable in ways that we haven’t leveraged yet, and can support virtuous cycles that generate more art for our community, more revenue for artists, and more ways for people to establish relationship with art and artists: relationships that may end up being just as important as any other component.

The Fundiversify model is one that should be experimented with by different communities, and if it works should definitely be an arrow in our quiver to reinvent the art funding process for the 21st century.

Nor should we forget the fundamental premise: that the tension between our culture and the world of consumption can be productive. The case of the Billboard Liberation Front shows us that this may very well happen whether we design it – or like it. Systems like Fundiversify, which recognize that our community, if its needs are taken seriously, adds value, are an attempt to make that work for us.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

7 Comments on “Making Patronage Work for Us: Recognizing That Our Community Creates Value

  • Rand E Oertle says:

    Just a caveat for Caveat Magister. I’m not a burner, if that’s the correct nomenclature but I have been a friend of Timeless for many years. As a non-burner I suppose I would be considered a heretic for my philosophical opinions relating to your proposals in the first part of your post. However relating to Matt’s concept of Fundiversity, he’s been telling me about his idea for years. I was a sculptor too, which is how Matt and I met. I relate closely to what he’s proposing. To move large scale art to various communities, for greater exposure seems to me would be a great idea. And as Matt says each piece will increase it’s value by generating a buzz for the art displayed for the owner or potential buyer. The money part of art is a problem, it seems, in some parts of Burning Man thought. It’s a problem for what I would call the liberal side of the spectrum and a problem I never quite understood. Talent (skill), labor, time and experience are the four elements of all creative processes. Why is it that those elements are considered of no worth by some burners if employed by an “artist” and immense worth if employed by a doctor or lawyer, etc? One of the things I understand Matt to be proposing is that the work of art be considered to increase in value as it impacts it’s viewers and patrons, as all labor demands higher values when it reaches a level approaching greater perfection along with greater impact. That when his or her creations rise in value, the commensurate compensation to the artist be included. If the elements of endeavor are all priced at the same level it destroys the concept of expanding excellence. Isn’t that what life is, expanding personal excellence? The rub is that money, a non-intrinsic valued commodity, is used as an agreed to exchange for something of “want” then a conflict occurs in the rate. Seems to me that Matt’s idea is a community and artist friendly concept.

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  • SkullDougery says:

    As just a 4th year Burner with a huge passion for travelling art, I too am drawn to Timeless’ model of Fundiversify. After camping next to him at Burning Man 2015, I found myself immediately adopting his new found culture of mixing the desert with the streets.
    My creation, a 16 foot dust free observation tower doesn’t have to be put back in storage for next year accruing astronomical fees. Instead it can be paraded around my S.F. neighborhood from one micro-event to the next. Meeting people along the way with an obvious curiosity, I am able to share with them my experience of giving without asking for anything in return. I will tell you outright, the emotional response back far outweighs any monetary value you can put on it. Also knowing that one conversation might be the inspiration to create their own art is priceless. Can I survive on feelings alone ? Only time will tell. Just as a warning : a passion for art and a credit card can be addictive.
    I’ve never felt comfortable asking for contributions by way of a crowd funding machine. Fundiversify is different though. It gives patrons the opportunity to take stock in an art piece and the artist. That in turn would boost the prolific integrity of the artist to elaborate on the piece, increasing it’s value. When it’s all said and done my tower may only find it’s way as a child’s backyard play structure. As long as it is still giving happiness and instilling inspirational curiosity.

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  • DH- or dancinghands says:

    I think this model is well thought out and would meet the needs of both the artist and investors. Not only would this limit the idea of ownership that holds some artists integrity for self expression hostage. It would allow those trying to influence the use of art as a political, social, activism a way to encourage by not own how art inspires or communicates. I think that this model would encourage collaboration among artists, to complete bigger projects and would likely allow the attraction or attention that investors would also be able to capitalize on. I think actually it could be a fancy marriage between hardcore burners and the plug and play crowd. I think there has got to be room for both and maybe even a bigger purpose within the community. Perhaps this is already in the making, but hats off to Timeless for finding ways to encourage intergrity, purpose and funding with the arts. I am looking forward to seeing ways that this funding structure will encourage more art.

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  • Joseph Stanton says:

    I met Timeless almost two years ago at Burning Man. His art was breathtaking and his new ideas have always inspired me. As an artist who self funded [my own art projects on the playa (maxing out a credit card), and although my projects may be smaller I understand how it still can be quite difficult to make them happen if you don’t have the right resources. The idea of helping artists create art comfortably, and actually have the ability to obtain the resources they need has always been a great motive for me to be apart of what Timeless is trying to create. There is an incredible amount of talent at burning man, and there is so much money out there, why the lack of resources? The more resources we create for artist the more art and growth we’re going to see. It’s funny actually, before the philanthropic drive I was talking about the same ideas we are now and people would tear me apart! Although I don’t think that most of these people have ever funded/created a project themselves. More recently it seems that people are starting to want to make positive impact in the world, and realizing that the community at Burning Man has the power to make that kind of change. It’s things like this that are going to empower people to take steps toward that goal. It makes me extremely happy to see our community going in this direction. So much good can come of it both on and off the playa, and I can’t wait to see how our community will impact the world.

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  • Hondro says:

    One of my colleagues, Tom Fitzpatrick, originally saw a few of Timeless’s sculptures when driving from Reno to South Lake Tahoe over a year ago. We both were intrigued with his works and out of curiosity we paid a visit to his studio hoping to learn more about the sculptures and the sculptor. As our visit became more frequent, Timeless talked about bringing art to South Lake Tahoe to share with the public. Today we have several of his pieces at the Beach Retreat and Lodge in South Lake Tahoe. We have purchased some of the works to be enjoyed by our guests and display others Timeless has displayed for the enjoyment of the general public on the beach in front of the property. We know freedom to create art to inspire the public is the end game for Timeless, not money. That said, the reality of the world remains. We all need money for basic human needs. Without funding, the art produced many times is dictated by others versus the creative ideas of the artist. Carving bears or other animals for display can serve to fund living expenses but it doesn’t necessarily offer highly talented artist the freedom to create great art. The designs of Timeless, the preparation, the massive undertaking and the end products are more than impressive but take an enormous amount of time and therefor funding. Fundiversify is a means to offer artistic freedom for exceptional artists to create exceptional works of art. It in effect emancipates an artist from the current reality of the life of many a true artist. Maybe the common world does need and appreciate another mail box carved into the shape of a bear but wouldn’t the common world also appreciate the uncommonly great works of art Fundiverify could stimulate?

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  • Cam K says:

    Timeless is a Burning Man artist trying to bridge the gap between burners and the general public through creative design. The 10 Principles of Burning Man are exotic and inclusive and this mentality is exactly what we are seeing with Timeless and his “Fundiversity” model. Using a 100% inclusive funding model to promote art for Burning Man while also recognizing that the non-burner community is deserving of these visual works as well could become the newest platform for art crowd-funding and the next great generation of art and artist.

    It is often said the fastest way to make a billion dollars is to help a billion people. Today, art has become one of the most valuable portions of the 1%’s portfolios while artist seemingly live paycheck-to-paycheck looking for the next commission so they can continue to create. Radically excluding this model, I challenge any reader to think of the possibility that an artist can construct their dreams without limit from their financial dependency but create using financial community. Imagine now that under this new platform for funding – Fundiversity – we had a billion dollars and could tell artist, go make art. The results would be visually, emotionally, and financially astounding.

    The art that Timeless has created and continues to create is not art for one man; it is art for an entire community both on and off the playa. This communal good is value at its core. Art like this appreciates in value as it becomes part of a community rather than just another collector’s trophy or dust ridden piece of desert art. If the dollars put towards art and artist is communal and the subsequent piece is used within this community its value becomes intrinsic, nearly priceless, given that it is the community’s appreciation that gives value to the art. Equally, it is the art that returns appreciation for the community by way of financial gains. This cyclical progression is in my opinion, well worth investing in and I look forward to following Timeless and Fundiversity over the next couple months/years to see the results.

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  • Timeless says:

    Attention! Philanthropic Investment Alert!!!

    What! FUNDIVERSIFY CONFERENCE in the brew…

    Why! To brainstorm and fine-tune a plan to put welcome money in artists pockets, inspiring art in blank community spaces, real fire inside communities and fun diversity into investment portfolios — a plan Larry Harvey calls a “a virtuous circle”.

    Where! SoulFire Precon Lupin Lodge, Los Gatos. (I’ll hook you up if you click my name over there and send me an email).

    When! June 24-26

    What the fuck is Fundiversify! You can click my name to read all about it but first you may want to read what this court certified art and antique appraiser says about it (Tony Pernicone has more certifications than I have unmatching socks.):

    “I read through your Fundiversify concept, and it’s brilliant. I can see why so many people are latching on to the concept. It seems like you took our conversation years ago about building the value of a work of art based on its exposure, and applied it to the principle of Fundivesify. You’ve obviously done your homework and have come up with a substantial and very doable plan. I’m especially intrigued with allowing the sponsors of the work to include the working class man/woman, who’s affinity for art, can be taken to a new level by being a part of the ownership process. And potentially share in profits as time moves along.”

    And who else likes the idea!

    Larry Harvey: “I find your Fundiversify model very interesting. If I understand this correctly, it mandates that art move through communities. By doing so, it would seem to accrue both cultural value, as we understand it, and marketplace value, which works as an incentive for the patron to sponsor the artist.”

    Caveat Magister: “It arguably creates more of the world we want to see…”

    Cam K [not sure who this blogger is but he’s spot on]: “Using a 100% inclusive funding model to promote art for Burning Man while also recognizing that the non-burner community is deserving of these visual works as well could become the newest platform for art crowd-funding and the next great generation of art and artist.”

    And who the hell are you! My name is Timeless. I’m an aging Firemeister and fellow playa rat and I bring fresh water to keep the pond from go’n smelly. To do this, let’s see, so far I’ve invited Larry Harvey, Caveat Magister and their buddy Steuart Something — and other mighty Burners. Let’s see who shows… The Conference may be hosted at one of the camps or maybe at my art installation there (waiting to hear…). Hit me up if you want updates, we’ll get’ya there!

    Everyone should try to come some time over the weekend, because I think an idea recently discussed, a national database of available display venues in public spaces (See “Art Gets More Valuable When “Data” Becomes “Relationships”, May 23, 2016, By Caveat Magister)
    I think this data base could be the bare bones of Renaissance and I think Fundiversify is the muscle. And Leonardo would approve the anatomical analogy.

    OK we’re all gonna try to show up there, thanks Timeless, your great!!!

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