Arts & Civic Engagement: the First Seven Months

When I joined Burning Man seven months ago, many people suggested that I communicate my vision or plans as the Director, Art & Civic Engagement. And while I felt the desire to be visible, available, and communicative, I also felt the weight of the honor and responsibility that came with this new role.

I spent more than a decade in the hip hop dance and theater community, and I learned there that “show and prove” is louder than anything you say. So when I started here, instead of talking about what I was going to do, I listened, learned, and tried to be of service.

This post is an opportunity to share some of what has happened since my arrival: changes I’ve had the privilege of participating in; changes that result from input from artists and my team. They are a beginning.

Ascension | Rising in Love by Jeremy Richardson
Ascension | Rising in Love by Jeremy Richardson

Our team includes Playa Arts, Civic Arts, Civic Engagement, Global Art Grants and Burners Without Borders. But we are heading to the playa soon, so this post will focus on the art and artists of Black Rock City. So what are we doing?

Honoraria Grants

This year, we asked ourselves how we could create a collection of art that embodied the experience of da Vinci’s Workshop, allowed for participation, responded to the scale of the environment, and was also eclectic, surprising, adventurous, and exciting.

When you have 475 Letters of Intent and 217 invited proposals, you have to think carefully about how to distribute $1.2 million in ways that are meaningful and contribute substantially to the artists’ costs.

There is also another program that has the potential to direct another $480,000 to playa-bound art this year. Read this post about Fiscal Sponsorship.

There is a school of thought that suggests giving money to as many artists as possible. But this year we wanted to concentrate on developing a quality experience for participants and providing quality funding and infrastructure support to artists.

So we funded 60 art projects (compared with 82 in 2015). But we funded them more fully. (This does not include the 28 art projects in the Guild workshops and the statues and bells for the Man base, so total funded art projects equals 94).

We request that artists submit their proposals with a top, middle, and low tier of funding requested (some do this and some don’t). In 2015 we funded 30% of artists at 100% of their funding request (at their selected tier). This year we funded 98% of artists at 100% of their funding request (at their selected tier).

Self-funded Artists

Many artists choose to self-fund their projects when coming to the playa. These self-funded projects represent a significant portion of the art on playa. You can see some of the numbers below:

# of Honoraria: 60
# of Workshop Guilds: 28
Self-funded (questionnaire submitted): 207
Walk-ins: unknown
Total 300+


To recognize these artists and their contributions, we’ve made some changes, including inviting self-funded artist projects to participate in our Desert Arts Preview; budgeting a larger allotment of support in early arrival passes and tickets for self-funded artists; and including the self-funded projects earlier in the placement process.

Art Project Management

There has also been significant change to the structure that supports the art coming to playa. The “art department”, which we like to think of as “Playa Arts”, now has a team of subject-matter experts called the “Central Arts Team” or the “CAT”.

This team is made up of two co-captains who have discrete areas of responsibility but who can also share authority and decision-making, relieve each other on playa, and consult with each other when setting direction. They are Katie Hazard and Jeremy Crandell.

Katie has primary responsibility for the Honoraria process, the tech tools, and the volunteers at the Artery. Jeremy has primary responsibility for the placement of art on playa, the Art Support Services team, the Fire Arts Safety Team, and the Artery operations and logistics team. Jeremy also serves as a bridge to the Civic Arts team for Playa Arts in the world year-round.

Other CAT members include Brody Scotland, who is our Analytics and Logistics Coordinator, Dave X, Manager of the Fire Arts Safety Team, and Maria Partridge, our Artist Advocate. Each CAT member assists between 13 and 60 projects. They also sort through a tagging process (we call it the “Sorting Hat”) that identifies attributes like level of complexity, fire, international, first-timer, and large-scale engineering. This allows us to provide a comprehensive and individualized set of tools and information leading up to the event.

(Photo by Sydney Erthal)
(Photo by Sydney Erthal)


We’ve also made some adjustments to the volunteer teams. The Art Support Services team has doubled from 20 members to 40 members and will be working in squads to mirror the project management structure outlined above.

Another dramatic and important change is our approach to the art tours — which we’ve reimagined as art discovery. We looked at art tours and realized they were only one answer to the question, “How do we help people discover the art?”.

So our art tour volunteers are now called Art Discovery Librarians or AD-Libbers! And they’re completely re-thinking how to facilitate discovery with some new ideas and approaches.

Which brings me to the other volunteer teams at the ARTery: Greeter, Concierge, Mapinatrix and Field Ops. They’ve become the ARTerians!

And we’re exploring new ways to appreciate and value our volunteers as a group while also reaching out to the list of 1,100 people who’ve expressed a desire to share their gifts with us as we support artists.

Special Notes

What does it mean when we say that we’re appreciating our artists? We’re constantly asking ourselves. So while we will likely have our traditional artist appreciation party, we will also have daily ways to appreciate artists (look for surprise elements at the ARTery).

We are also providing improved services on playa, more streamlined approaches to ticketing, and more pre-event support through our project managers.

We’ve added porta-potties at build sites for large-scale projects. No more long breaks so everyone can hike across the playa to find a bathroom. We’ll put porta-potties out near the big builds during early build weeks and move them before the event gets started.

Everywhere/ARTery Redesign

This year the physical space on playa will reflect the organization’s integration of many different programs, including the annual event in Black Rock City, Regional Network, Burners Without Borders programs, Civic Arts initiatives and Global Art Grants, our Community Events and Black Rock Solar.

We are a unified whole, and our space will reflect this. There will be a contiguous flow from the specialized service in the ARTery to the Everywhere space where the networking and celebration of our global reach happens.


Have we got it all? Have we got it all right? Not a chance! We’re learning, growing, working to improve. This is the beginning of building on what has come before and finding our way forward. We look forward to seeing you on playa!

Top photo by Darrell Ansted

About the author: Kim Cook

Kim Cook

Kim Cook is Burning Man's Director of Creative Initiatives. She works on the frontier of exploration for projects and collaborations that extend Burning Man culture into the world. Most recently, Cook facilitated the team for "virtual Burning Man 2020" with 10 technology platform partners offering a range of digital, dynamic, and interactive approaches to the "Multiverse". She successfully builds urban, regional, national, and international projects that increase mutual understanding, advance civic well being, elevate cultural engagement, and further the aesthetic design elements of communities.

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