Putting the “City” in Black Rock City at the U.S. Conference of Mayors

When I left my gig in politics in 2011, I never would have guessed I’d be speaking at the U.S. Conference of Mayors seven years later. I definitely didn’t imagine I’d be there on behalf of Burning Man. Life is full of surprises.

At the gathering’s annual breakfast honoring leadership in the arts on January 26, I stood in front of roughly 500 mayors, art directors, and other arts advocates from across the U.S., sharing some of what Burning Man culture has to offer communities well beyond our home in Northern Nevada. The program included remarks from Second Lady Karen Pence, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Actor Michael Cerveris, and several Mayors who were recognized for their leadership in the arts.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors is the non-partisan membership organization of Mayors from U.S. cities with a population of 30,000 or more (there are roughly 1,400 of these). The group meets twice a year: each January in Washington, D.C. and each June in a different city in the U.S. The Conference passes resolutions on matters of national urban policy, which are shared with the President and Congress. It represents the voice of local leadership from across the country.

So what was Burning Man doing there?

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, a proud Burner and Reno native, asked us to participate. As the recently named chair of the Tourism, Arts, Parks, Entertainment and Sports Committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mayor Schieve helps shape the agenda for the group, and has the honor of hosting the annual Leadership in the Arts Breakfast that takes place on Friday of the Conference’s Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. Mayor Schieve asked us to bring a bit of the Burning Man spirit to the nation’s mayors, to help them recognize the positive impact of Burning Man (and arts and culture more broadly) on Reno and beyond.

Mayor Schieve’s enthusiasm for who we are and what we do is palpable. In my first meeting with her, I was struck by her account of Black Rock City. “It was like a whole world existed that I didn’t even know was possible,” she beamed. She emphasized how important it is for people to feel empowered — to have that very Burning Man experience of looking around and realizing, We made this! We did this! We can do anything!

She’s also keenly aware of the cultural and economic benefits Burning Man brings to her great city. From large-scale installations along the Truckee River and the Playa Art Park downtown, to large Burner/Maker spaces like the Generator and Artech, and the recent exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art, Burning Man and Reno have found a symbiotic relationship that works to honor artists, celebrate Burning Man’s ethos, and stimulate the local economy.

We were thrilled to receive the invitation from Mayor Schieve. Eight Burning Man Project representatives traveled to Washington to participate: Marnee Benson, Stuart Mangrum, Christopher Breedlove, Jenn Sander, Zac Cirivello, Maria Partridge, co-founder Crimson Rose and myself.

Burning Man Project Education Director Stuart Mangrum addresses the conference (Photo by David Hathcox, USCM)

Learning With the Mayors

After the breakfast, we hosted a breakout session for those who wanted to hear more. Burning Man Project Director of Education Stuart Mangrum gave a stellar presentation about Black Rock City operations, what we’ve learned about urban design over the years, and how we’ve collaborated with cities to bring large-scale collaborative art and the 10 Principles out of the desert and into communities. BMP Arts Advocate Maria Partridge followed up with a deep dive into the impact of Burning Man on Reno, highlighting some of the exciting new projects there, including Kate Raudenbush’s sculpture, Transition Portal, which was commissioned by the Nevada Department of Transportation and is installed at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center.

In true Burning Man fashion, we didn’t just bring presentations for the Mayors. We also brought art. Huge thanks to LA-based artist Scott Froschauer for bringing and installing his piece, The Sign of the Times, which was on playa in 2017 and will be included in the upcoming exhibition No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, which opens at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum on March 30. The piece features the 10 Principles as street signs and proved to be an effective conversation starter about Burning Man’s values.

Aaron Mowgli Parness, in a matter of hours, built a Before I Leave Office wall in the spirit of Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” piece that has become a global participatory art phenomenon. I particularly enjoyed watching mayors tentatively eye the piece, start to warm up to the idea, then pick up the chalk and write in their intentions. Fund more public art. Build a youth center. Create an innovation district. Improve access to public transportation. Empower more women.

(Photos by Zac Cirivello)

I was particularly moved witnessing Mayor Karen Weaver of Flint, Michigan write “I want to create access to clean, affordable drinking water.

And of course we were pleased to see “Go to Burning Man!”

Mayors Today, Burners Tomorrow?

So what can mayors learn from our D.I.Y. city in the desert?

We’ve found that when people build their own city, they are deeply invested in what happens there. They take care of it, and of each other. Our city design is a reflection of what we value: self-expression, inclusion, and collaboration, and its residents are engaging in all kinds of ways to make the world more like the one they want to live in.

From large-scale public art projects, solar installations, and beach clean-ups, to parklets and disaster relief efforts, Burners are rolling up their sleeves and remaking their hometowns into more vibrant, inclusive, and resilient communities. This is what we shared with the mayors of America: Our job as leaders is to build a platform, to extend an invitation — to create conditions that encourage experimentation, citizen-driven solutions, and high levels of participation.

Kate Raudenbush’s Transition Portal at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center (Photo courtesy of Kate Raudenbush)

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Conference of Mayors participants were open-minded and asked interesting questions. People thanked us for being there. They said it was important, that everybody needs to think big about how to address the challenges we face, and that this is just the kind of thing groups like the Conference of Mayors need to inspire more creative thinking. Mayor Schieve said she wanted to shake things up, and she did!

As it turns out, Mayors weren’t the only ones talking about Burning Man in Washington that week. While in town, we stumbled upon this event hosted by the Cato Institute (yes, that Cato Institute). The dialogue was thoughtful and engaging, and for me it reinforced one of the most important things about Burning Man: its meaning and power transcend political divisions.

We also had a chance to join the weekly Burner Meetup at D.C. bar, Local 16. Despite the fact that much of the D.C. crew was in Florida for The Love Burn, we still had a chance to connect with folks from Catharsis, Nation of Makers, and the Congressional Maker Caucus.

I wasn’t sure what being in D.C. would feel like during these tense political times, but I’m so grateful I got to spend time with local elected officials from across the country, and across party lines. No matter what our political affiliation or ideology, I believe we all stand to benefit from creative expression, inclusion, and innovation. I came away feeling energized to keep making the kind of change I’d like to see in this country. Lately, political attention has been fixated on the national level, but clearly cities are where the action is. I look forward to a day when every city can call Black Rock City its sister city.

Top photo: Michael Cerveris, Robert Lynch, Mayor Mike Rawlings, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Tom Cochran, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Mayor Javier Gonzalez, Mayor Hillary Schieve, Mayor Stephen Benjamin, Megan Miller, Mayor Bryan K. Barnett, Mayor Elizabeth B. Kautz, photo by David Hathcox, USCM

About the author: Megan Miller

Megan Miller

Megan is an accomplished communications professional with experience in the private, public and nonprofit sectors. She’s a skilled leader, writer, editor, public speaker, and strategic adviser. Megan is passionate about the art of sharing information in creative and impactful ways, and believes in the power of ideas and authentic self-expression to change the world for the better. Before joining the year-round Burning Man staff in 2012, Megan spent ten years working for environmental protection, HIV/AIDS prevention, political campaigns, and the United States Senate. Born and raised in Juneau, Alaska, Megan earned a Bachelor’s degree in English & Art History from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec and is a 2007 graduate of the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs. She is also a certified yoga instructor who loves shaking it loose on the dance floor.

16 Comments on “Putting the “City” in Black Rock City at the U.S. Conference of Mayors

  • Heather RW Park says:

    I loved this article. It’s all about awareness. Even participation in politics, opens so many doors. And the expression and freshness of art, creates in all of us to play. We as adults need to have fun and play like children. I hope to be a participant some day at BurningMan.
    Heather Park

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    • Megan Miller says:

      Thanks so much, Heather. I couldn’t agree more about play – I feel like I learned how to play for the first time at Burning Man. I hope to see you in Black Rock City someday!

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  • Graham Stokes says:

    Thank you for this. It inspires and informs: oxygen for healthy, beautiful, and creative flame.

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  • Agua says:

    Pretty damn cool. I actually got a little buzz of happiness after reading this! Thank You!

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  • Sticks says:

    After hearing “Burning Man” about 50 times right before getting up to speak, Nancy Pelosi thinks “it was such a treat to learn more about Burning Tree”. Ugh. Please rescind any offer for her to come out to TTiTD.

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  • Mark McCormack says:

    I am glad the BM was invited and attended the event. This is a big plus for artist world wide to get big artwork into metropolitan areas, and helps the world enjoy artwork not found in museum’s.

    What i found disappointing was Megan’s comment ” ’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what being in D.C. during this administration would feel like,”

    In my humble opinion I think BM and it’s representatives need to steer clear of commenting on their political beliefs. Comments like that and others that I have read appear more damaging than beneficial for the event. I.E. you are potentially losing 50% of your audience.

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    • Dan Drelich says:

      If you read the survey from just about any year, I think it’s safe to say that any loss would be small. However, any loss is not worth the risk and I agree that politics should be left out of any discussion like this.

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    • Megan Miller says:

      Thank you so much for this comment, Mark. My intention was certainly not to alienate anyone. To the contrary, I was hoping to emphasize the fact that Burning Man has the potential to transcend political differences. I tweaked the language and appreciate your feedback.

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  • Dave says:

    “We made this! We did this! We can do anything!” This, so much. It’s always the second or third day on playa when this hits me incredibly hard. It’s inspiration that lasts all year. I honestly wish more of the default power structure could experience this, and bring a little more “should try ” and a lot less “won’t work” into our lives.

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  • Allison Miller says:

    Just wonderful! I believe every way – big or small – that BMorg and burners can carry the ten principles into the default world makes a positive impact. let’s continue spreading the energy of love, respect, self-expression, the Arts, community and participation!

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  • Gerflash says:

    We need to cut Nancy Pelosi some slack for getting our name wrong, and also happy to see that there was considerable appreciation of the Burning Man experience from both parties. And maybe – we find out just how much Russia has injected such dissension into our country’s political environment – we may indeed learn that it wasn’t all our fault, and that we can do some needed healing. I’d love to see several hundred mayors out at Burning Man this year – And Ms. Pelosi and Mrs. Pence!

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  • Dan Baker says:

    Well written piece Megan. Interesting story. The Burning Man Nation has arrived.

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  • Tony 'Coyote' Perez-Banuet says:

    “Making over consuming — what you do, instead of what you have.”
    May I add — cooperate instead of compete –
    Our influence spreads because it’s from the heart and soul.

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