What It Takes to Bring Burning Man to the Smithsonian

How We Got Here:

• The exhibition, which aims to tell the story of the playa’s limitless creativity, is a close collaboration between Burning Man Project and the Renwick Gallery that started in 2016.

• Large and small-scale Burning Man pieces will be spread throughout the gallery floors and the surrounding Washington D.C. neighborhood.

• “No Spectators” will feature installation art, jewelry, costumes, and photography, some of which were drawn from a call out to the Burning Man community by the Civic Arts department with the help of volunteer Affinity Mingle.

• The exhibition will be on display from March 30, 2018 – January 21, 2019.

This is the fourth post in a series about “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” the upcoming exhibition at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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What happens when your email inbox announces an interest in Burning Man from the Smithsonian? What does it mean for the founders, the community, and the artists of Burning Man? Thus began a step-by-step process to protect the integrity of the culture and the 10 Principles, and to advance opportunities for artists and community members to engage and be a part of this shift in our visibility in the world at large.

The journey began in San Francisco with an October 2016 visit from Renwick Gallery curator Nora Atkinson. We did four days of road trip, artist studio visits, conversations, and careful negotiations about how the art will be exhibited — the wording for “sponsors” will be changed to supporter or partner, no brand logos near the art, always, always create community opportunities to engage. We were off and running.

Over the year we continued to assemble names, websites, and contact information of artists from across the history of Black Rock City: sculptors, fire artists, photographers, Mutant Vehicles. We worked to lay the world of Burning Man wide open so the curator would have as big a picture as we could paint of our fantastic and wondrous art and culture.

Soon Crimson Rose, Will Roger, Harley K. Dubois and I voyaged to Washington, D.C. to see the Renwick and meet with Nora, the curator. Nora then took another trip to San Francisco in the spring, and we took her on another round of studio visits and added volunteer extraordinaire Affinity Mingle into the picture. Affinity worked with Burning Man Project’s Civic Arts Coordinator, Joe Meschede, to help with a community call for artisans and makers.

This call brought forth over 200 ideas for wider participation for us to consider: street signs, jewelry, utility belts, many ideas came pouring in. We sorted and sent all the information to the curator for consideration. As time went by, we spent even more time responding to artists who were interested in being a part of the exhibit, making sure their names and links to their work were all shared with the curator for possible inclusion in the show.

We spent many calls, many meetings, many quiet moments of conversation. How will we make sure this is an exhibit that feels like us? Not just objects in a room. How do we make sure it’s clear Burning Man is a we? This culture stands as a collective of truly unique individuals who work together, not isolated “art stars”.

After so much discussion about bringing the culture into the Renwick environment, at last Nora came to Black Rock City, and she zoomed through Build Week and all around the playa. She’s at home there. The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Director, Stephanie Stebich, also came to playa for a one-day reconnoitering trip. Kitted out in something like safari gear, she wound up with a Dr. Seuss hat riding around on a golf cart with our team’s Logistics and Analytics Coordinator, Brody Scotland, taking it all in and making friends along the way.

In late September, Brody and I went out to the Smithsonian for days of meetings. We asked questions like: Can the lines have Greeters? Can there be a Mutant Vehicle parade? Can Burners be museum docents? Local Burners from the D.C. area join in; they’ve got things to bring to the mix as well: meetups, park activation, couch surfing for visiting Burners. They’re ready to roll!

Later Brody went back to D.C. and began to work with the Smithsonian team on volunteer manuals and strategies for engagement. Burning Man Project stayed in the mix, we offered care, we reached out to the artists — everything going okay? We trouble-shot a problem here and there, crossed our fingers and hoped these elements can be integrated into the exhibition plan.

In December and into early 2018, we launched our public communications about the exhibition, including this very Journal series, with more stories and participation opportunities to come. Stay tuned!

We’re gearing up. March 30, here we come. D.C., get ready!

Top photo: Abraxas during Catharsis on the Mall 2016 (Photo by Kris Northern)

About the author: Kim Cook

Kim Cook

Kim Cook is Director, Art & Civic Engagement, managing the teams that deliver Civic Arts initiatives, Burners Without Borders, and Art to the playa, including Honoraria and Global Arts Grants programs.

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