After much listening, discussion, and careful consideration, we have made the difficult decision not to build Black Rock City in 2020. Given the painful reality of COVID-19, one of the greatest global challenges of our lifetimes, we believe this is the right thing to do. Yes, we are heartbroken. We know you are too. In 2020 we need human connection and Immediacy more than ever. But public health and the well-being of our participants, staff, and neighbors in Nevada are our highest priorities.
We are, however, going to build Black Rock City in The Multiverse. That’s the theme for 2020 so we’re going to lean into it. Who’d have believed it would come true? We look forward to welcoming you to Virtual Black Rock City 2020. We’re not sure how it’s going to come out; it will likely be messy and awkward with mistakes. It will also likely be engaging, connective, and fun.
Some of you who already purchased a ticket for the playa may need that money now more than ever. We’re committed to providing refunds to those who need them, but we’re also committed to keeping Burning Man culture alive and thriving, and to ensuring our organization stays operational into next year’s event season — which will require substantial staff layoffs, pay reductions, and other belt-tightening measures. Burning Man Project’s survival is going to depend on ingenuity and generosity. Luckily, our community is rich in both.
Whether you have already purchased a ticket, have been waiting for the Main Sale, or are simply supportive of our vision and mission — if you have the means, it is our sincerest hope that you will consider donating all or a portion of your ticket value, and/or making a tax-deductible donation to Burning Man Project. This is going to be a tough year for us, as we know it will be for you, but we will get through it together.
With your support, we will continue investing in key programs like Burners Without Borders, Fly Ranch, the Regional Network, and our Philosophical Center. We will continue with projects already in motion, including grants to artists, BWB micro grants, and deploying educational leadership content. We also have exciting new projects on the horizon, including publishing a book and launching a cultural magazine.
Financial challenges aside, we are optimistic about Burning Man’s future and what The Multiverse will reveal in the year ahead: a chance to explore new ways of connecting and convening online (prepare your playa gear for a virtual Black Rock City — more info below!), deepen our commitment to environmental sustainability, realign our partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, and create new and meaningful pathways for the community to connect and collaborate, especially during the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Since our earliest days on Baker Beach, we have always been, first and foremost, a community. And we’re a community familiar with being in a state of survival. There were many years when the Black Rock City event almost didn’t happen. We know how to face uncertainty and how to adapt to the changing world around us. We will tackle this challenge the same way humans across the globe are doing right now — by drawing strength and inspiration from one another. We are all Burning Man.
Please watch this important message from Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell, read below for answers to your burning questions (yup, we said it), and explore more of our upcoming Multiverse here.
Your Friends at Burning Man Project
Whoa. What’s happening?
As we all know, the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to wreak havoc around the world. At this point the likelihood of 80,000 people being able to gather safely this summer is extremely low. Because Black Rock City requires the collaboration and commitment of an entire community — artists, builders, theme camp organizers, volunteers, local stakeholders, and so many more — coupled with significant investments of time, money, and energy, we don’t think it’s practical for us to continue waiting and hoping for the best. Nor do we think that would be fair to our community members who give so much of themselves to this event. Beyond our concerns about the coronavirus, new impositions and unnecessary cost requirements from the Bureau of Land Management have seriously threatened the viability of producing Black Rock City in the Black Rock Desert. If Black Rock City is to be built on public lands in the future, we have significant challenges to overcome with the BLM.
What does this mean for the future of the organization? What will you do instead of building a city in the desert?
Things are looking a little grim. We are a year-round nonprofit dedicated to extending the culture of Burning Man beyond Black Rock City and into the world. Our teams spend a considerable amount of time and energy on other programs, including Burners Without Borders, Fly Ranch, the Regional Network, and our Philosophical Center. We intend to keep supporting these efforts in addition to supporting grants to artists, issuing micro grants through Burners Without Borders, deploying educational leadership content, publishing a book and launching a cultural magazine. With your support, we will keep doing this work. We will also continue to co-create ways for you to explore and imagine via in-person and online convenings that will keep us all connected in the dust-free year ahead. We are going to have to do it more efficiently and with fewer resources, but the work will go on. However the world changes as a result of this crisis, it’s going to need Burning Man more than ever.
We are especially excited to refocus our efforts on co-creating a collective, online celebration of The Multiverse, also known as a virtual Black Rock City or “VBRC” (see what we did there).
A virtual Black Rock City? What does that look like?
In this Multiverse, Black Rock City will be online, and everyone will be welcome to join in. On a virtual playa, there’s no limit to who can participate. Like That Thing in The Desert, we will have costs and will need to create some kind of “ticket.” We’re working out those details and will share them as soon as we can. It won’t be like the BRC we’ve built over the years; we know there’s no substitute for an in-person experience. It will be a new kind of Burn. We want to co-create BRC online with 100,000 participants to share our passions, explore fun new ways to live more sustainably, connect in these challenging times, and take care of one another. We know the community has vast potential to meet the challenges of the world. Let’s do it together. If you want to collaborate, let us know here!
How will Burning Man Project weather the economic impact of this decision?
Only with your support. Tickets to Black Rock City are our primary source of revenue, representing more than 90% of the nonprofit’s annual income. But 60% of the work we do is dedicated to the year-round cultural programs. Without that revenue to rely on, we have made and will continue to make hard decisions and sacrifices. We have started by implementing salary cuts for everyone on our leadership team and are having to lay off some of our dedicated staff members. We hope to bring many of them back in 2021, but it’s too soon to know exactly how all of this will unfold. We are slashing expenses and looking at every line of our budget for possible cuts. If there’s any change stuck between the couch cushions, we’re going to find that too. But we really need your support to survive. We will not be able to build Black Rock City in 2021 if our experienced team members aren’t able to be with us.
What can I do to help Burning Man and Burning Man Project survive?
First and foremost, don’t give up hope. Burning Man will survive this crisis just as we have survived existential threats in the past. Second, keep burning in all the magical ways you know how — connecting and collaborating with your friends and imagining new ways to bring the 10 Principles to life. Third, take care of yourself and those around you — Burning Man is not a place or thing; it’s about the human-led and created culture that we continue to share and reinvent. We want to see all you beautiful people on the other side of this crisis, when we trade in our plague masks for dust masks. Finally, if you can afford to make a donation to Burning Man Project, please give what you can. In return, you will become our personal hero/heroine/otherwise-gendered heroic human and will be able to count yourself among the generous souls who helped save Burning Man in a time of crisis. Your generosity will have a huge impact on our collective future.
How and where can we continue to self-organize, share information, celebrate Burning Man, and maintain momentum?
There are many existing ways to connect and collaborate, and some we haven’t thought of yet, or are just beginning to invent! First of all, we encourage you to head over and Share Your (COVID) Story about how you, your campmates, or your friends and family are applying your Burning Man experience to help you get through these strange and challenging times. Check out the COVID response by Burners Without Borders, and take part in one of their weekly Community Conversations. Just this week we launched an entirely new publication: it’s called Beyond Burning Man and you’ll find it on Medium. This environment is devoted to the stories and takeaways that can inspire our collective creativity and impact. We want your stories. Please follow it if you’re on Medium and let us know if you’d like to contribute. We’re ready to be a clearing house for ideas and connection around content. It’s possible we’ll repurpose the Playa Events Calendar and just wait until you see what’s in store for Kindling. As usual, subscribe to the Jackrabbit Speaks, check out the latest stories from across our global community in the Burning Man Journal, and stay tuned as we continue to add more ways to get involved on Community During COVID You can also check out ePlaya to continue conversations, and Spark to collaborate on projects year-round and around the world.
That all sounds cool, what else?
We’re also in the process of building something that we’re super excited about. We call it Kindling. It’s content to spark the fire. A social laboratory, where we can explore the many ways you, the keepers of Burning Man culture, inspire and galvanize positive change and creative action in the world. Get ready to dive in, collaborate and share stories and content with fellow dreamers and doers across the Burnerverse. This new platform will also be a gathering place. If the global health situation stabilizes, we expect to also create an in-person event in the first half of 2021. You’ll be able to join activists and creators, changemakers and entrepreneurs at an in-person convening to connect, co-learn and explore. We’re thrilled to be jumping into this unknown and hope you’ll come along for the ride!
Are you offering refunds? What if I purchased a FOMO or DGS ticket for 2020?
The short answer: Yes, that’s the intention. Providing refunds is the right thing to do for our community members who have put so much trust in us over the years, and who may be experiencing their own financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic. This is a decision made in the interest of our culture and our community. It is an enormous financial risk, but we have faith that those with the means to do so will help us stay afloat during these challenging times. To that end, we’re going to ask that you consider gifting the value (or a portion of the value) of your purchased ticket back to Burning Man Project as a tax-deductible donation. This need is real. Please consider that Black Rock City on the playa isn’t happening, but Burning Man is still on fire and going strong!
How do I request a refund?
You will be able to request a refund through your Burner Profile. There will be several options, including one for requesting a full refund. You will also be asked, if you can, to donate the value (or a portion of the value) of your ticket(s) and/or vehicle pass to Burning Man Project. Once we have finished building the refund tool (working on it!) and are ready to start processing these requests, we will email ticket buyers from the DGS and FOMO sales with specific instructions. There’s a lot going on right now — please know that we’re working on it as fast as we can!
Will I also be refunded for the taxes and fees?
The 9% added to any ticket order to cover the Nevada Live Entertainment Tax is refundable. We are not able to refund transaction fees, however, because these fees are assessed and collected by third parties in order to process the transactions. We are of course in the position of working to get a refund to give a refund. Oh, the circles we are weaving!
Is my donation tax-deductible?
Yes, donating the value of a previously purchased ticket qualifies as a tax-deductible gift. That said, donors should always consult tax accountants or lawyers to confirm whether a particular gift they’re making qualifies as deductible.
Why aren’t you offering a “rollover” option so that the ticket I purchased for 2020 can be applied to 2021?
While this seems like a logical solution at first glance, it’s actually not a very practical or helpful one for managing our organizational operations and finances. Rolling tickets over to a future year only punts the financial challenge to a future date. We start spending money on the next Black Rock City at the beginning of the year a full 9 months before it happens — for contracts, staffing, permits, etc. So due to the complexity and unique nature of our event, we have already spent a portion of the funds from tickets sold. Although a “rollover” may be a reasonable option for smaller events with shorter production timelines, it would only serve as a very temporary band-aid to address the situation we’re in. We’re seeking long-term solutions that set us up to be sustainable for years to come. We think the difference between rolling over and having the money now and not having it in the spring of 2021 could be $10-12 million and we don’t know how to easily make up that shortfall at that time.
Don’t you have a “rainy day fund” or “prudent reserve” for this kind of thing?
Yes, Burning Man Project has approximately $10 million in reserve funds to cover contingencies, but this crisis goes well beyond any normal planning scenarios. Since we are providing refunds and keeping the ticket money separate in our minds from the operating expenses, we are currently using the reserve to survive. We don’t expect to have a reserve at the end of this year. Truthfully, without major changes, deep cutbacks, and a generous outpouring of donations, we could only stay operational for a few months on our reserve funds.
Doesn’t Burning Man Project have cancellation insurance?
While we do have cancellation insurance for certain situations, our insurance policy does not cover cancellation due to health epidemics or pandemics. We do not expect to receive any funds from insurance as a result of our event in the desert not happening this year. We have, however, applied for support from the Small Business Administration and are exploring every possible opportunity for federal support to help us weather this storm.
Was the Bureau of Land Management or the State of Nevada going to cancel the event anyway? Were any government entities involved in this decision?
We have been working closely with government officials and therefore this decision was entirely ours.
What about the economic impact on Northern Nevada? Is Burning Man Project planning anything to support Gerlach and nearby communities?
Black Rock City, including event production and participant activity, represents an annual injection of $75 million into the Northern Nevada economy. There is no doubt, especially in a year when the economy is taking an enormous hit, that not gathering in the Black Rock Desert will have a significant impact on Reno, Empire, Gerlach, and other Northern Nevada communities. We are committed to our neighbors in Nevada and are working on some ideas for offsetting this development. As an example, with Fly Ranch and the LAGI 2020 design challenge we are working to slowly build a steady flow of economic benefit. While the current situation prevents us from hosting group activities or nature walks, it does not stop ongoing progress towards building a year-round rural center for the Burning Man community, creative culture, and nearby communities.
Why cancel now? What is the downside of a “wait and see” approach?
Burning Man is a community of people who spend weeks, months, and in some cases years planning, preparing, building, and creating so that we can come together and experience the most awe-inspiring, engaging, and vibrant city on the planet. Given this reality, it is not possible to wait further into the summer to make a decision. Waiting would only cost the participants, the organization and the various cooperating agencies money and time, though truth be told we did wait as long as we could to make this decision. The time is now.
This year’s theme is/was/will be The Multiverse. What will the theme be for 2021?
The many worlds of The Multiverse allow for a near-infinite set of possibilities, but frankly, no one saw this coming. Let’s continue to open and explore new doors of experience and perception that technology and our own inventiveness allow in these unusual times. At this point, we won’t hazard a guess at the 2021 theme. It will reveal itself.
Will there be a Black Rock City event in 2021?
We certainly hope so. We don’t know what the public health situation will be a year from now, or what impact the pandemic will have had by then on our participants, our organization, or the global economy. It will also depend on whether the Bureau of Land Management, our permitting authority, is willing to work with us in a more collaborative manner. As you may know, the BLM has been imposing mounting costs and restrictions, making it increasingly difficult for us to continue holding our event in the Black Rock Desert. With your continued support, if we can keep the organization afloat and come to better terms with the BLM, yes, the Man will Burn again in Black Rock City.
You didn’t answer my question!
We know there are many more questions not answered here. We don’t have all of the answers! Like you, we are feeling our way in the dark here. Feel free to leave your unanswered questions in the comments below. We will share more information over the coming months, and as always, keep your eyes on the Jackrabbit Speaks and the Burning Man Journal for the latest.
Top photo: Graphic art by Tanner Boeger