Jen Duncan, Executive Director of the Hermitage Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, came into a staff meeting one day and plunked an oversized book of Burning Man art onto the conference room table with an idea for their next big exhibition. Fast forward through months of hard work with her dedicated staff, and the idea has definitely paid off with “The Art of Burning Man” (Their closing event is Saturday, October 14).
Norfolk is a big military town, and more conservative than San Francisco. I don’t know if the majority of the Hermitage’s usual audience had heard much about Burning Man, but the crowds at the Burning Man Nights are proof that Norfolk is definitely Burner-curious and Hermitage-supporting, despite Burning Man maybe seeming “weird” to the uninitiated.
When something seems different from our normal experience and we don’t have first-hand knowledge, it’s easy to to think of it as weird. How often does “that’s weird” really mean “that’s interesting!” once you have some direct experience or meet some people who are involved? I wonder how many Norfolk-area people have made this switch after their visit to the Hermitage.
Weird takes us out of our daily grind and shows us the variety of human expression — if we’re willing to give it a chance. Weird is memorable. Weird is… fun, if the amount of smiling faces I’ve seen at the Hermitage is any indication of a good time.
Why bother to share Burning Man culture as well as the art, though? It’s not advertising or recruitment; there’s not an expectation that events like these are a springboard into going to the event in the desert. It does, however, help make our culture more accessible, counteracting its often-narrow portrayal by the media. It’s an invitation to move from “that’s weird” to “wow, that’s fun!” — an invitation to play!
By bringing Burning Man interactive art, but also inviting participation with various classes, workshops, and events, the Hermitage has shown that no matter who you are, your interests probably align with at least one aspect of Burning Man culture, and maybe it’s not so weird after all. Yoga? Comedy? Painting? Bicycling? Improv? Delicious snacks? Music? Learning new skills? Beer? Beautiful gardens and strolling alongside the river at sunset? This is just a partial list of the happenings during their weekly Burning Man Nights.
This exhibit didn’t just give the general public an experience of Burning Man — it has been an opportunity for Norfolk-area Burners to connect to each other as well.
I recently attended a meeting with some of the volunteers and docents from the Art of Burning Man exhibit, and they told me having this exhibit in Norfolk is helping coalesce the local Burner community. It’s given them a rallying point and an excuse to gather. “I didn’t know there were so many Burners in our area!” one volunteer said. I’ve heard rumors of future creative events and art planning coming out of the Norfolk area, too, since it’s impossible to have a gathering of Burners and not come out the other side with a bunch of great ideas.
I was going to try and wrap this up in some sweeping universal statements about art saving the world or whatever, but that’s so intangible. With all the “othering” (us vs. them, unknown = bad) going on in the world lately, it makes me happy to see people gathering together — to experience art, participate and talk to each other — at a beautiful museum on the edge of the river in Norfolk. I guess it’s just as simple as that.
Top photo: Storied Haven by Five Ton Crane at the Hermitage (Photo by Yuzhu Zheng)