Burning Man and… Sotheby’s? An Interview With Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell

This interview was written by Katie Bain. For more from Katie about the Boundless Space auction, check out this piece in Sotheby’s Magazine.

Katie: How did this collaboration with Sotheby’s come to be? Who approached who, and when? Why is Sotheby’s the right partner for this project?

Marian: Burning Man Project was looking for new ways to raise income that will ensure its long-term survival, to create opportunities for artists, and to cultivate relationships with Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color (BIPOC) artists. The collaboration with Sotheby’s started thanks to an introduction from Fab 5 Freddy, a Burning Man Project board member and long-time Burner who has a fabled history in the New York hip hop and art communities. During the Sotheby’s 2020 Hip Hop auction, Fab met the CEO of Sotheby’s and proposed a benefit auction to raise funds for Burning Man Project. 

This joint effort allows Sotheby’s and Burning Man to explore how we use our respective platforms to bring together and cross reference our artists and communities, and to make a clear commitment to adding voices that have previously been missing from our two worlds. To that end, we are including artists and makers who are historically a part of our work while being deliberate about using this opportunity to invite and celebrate the work of BIPOC artists.  

Marian Goodell, CEO of Burning Man Project, 2016 (Photo by João Henriques)

Is it an intention of the organization to push Burning Man culture further outside the confines in which it already exists? If so, why? How does this auction/exhibition achieve that goal?

For years, Burning Man has been much more than an annual event in the Black Rock Desert. We are a global culture of creators and community organizers, with active Regional communities and events in more than 35 countries around the world. Our mission as a nonprofit is to facilitate and extend Burning Man culture into the wider world — so yes, there is a desire to share the 10 principles that flourish in Burning Man spaces. We have seen countless examples of these principles having positive benefits far beyond the spatial or temporal confines of what one may think of as a Burning Man event.

We believe our collaboration with Sotheby’s will fuel awareness of Burning Man Project as a global, values-based organization that stimulates creative expression, resilience, and leadership in the arts. This collaboration also has the potential to bring about new cross-pollinations and mentorships between artists, collectors, and members of the public who participate in the auction. We’re also hoping to draw new artists and creative ideas into the global Burning Man community.

“Ethiopia” by Big Chief Demond Melancon (Photo courtesy of the artist)

What new audiences would you like to reach? And what specifically would you like these new audiences to know/understand about Burning Man culture?

Boundless Space will open up Burning Man art and artists to a considerably larger audience of art lovers, many of whom will be learning about Burning Man culture and principles for the first time. We hope audiences new to Burning Man will fall in love with our artists, and be inspired to go beyond traditional collection mindsets and become enthusiastic about supporting art that functions in a civic, experiential and community building context. We are a culture of makers and participants — the key here is to empower individuals to become active creators within their own communities, in whatever context makes sense to them. That is the key — activation from passive audience or spectators to engaged, creative citizens.

“Maya’s Mind” by Mischell Riley, 2017 (Photo courtesy of the artist)

I’ve heard it said many times that Burning Man (the event) is many things to many people. Do you think it’s also fair to say that at its core, Burning Man is a hub for the arts and creative culture? Is it primarily an arts event?

Personally I don’t see Burning Man as primarily an arts event. I see it as a global culture that prioritizes radical and creative self-expression in all forms. For some, that urge to share one’s self — one’s ideas, experiences, perspectives, and feelings — manifests itself through the form of traditional art forms. For others, it can come to life in how we dress, interact, play, share and co-create. It’s fundamentally about the freedom to express oneself, and about the relationships that are formed as a result of co-creating, rather than art for art’s sake. You could say it’s about art for the sake of self-expression and community building.

I understand that the touring exhibit No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man broke attendance records at all three museums where it was shown. What do you make of the public fascination with Burning Man?

Burning Man has certainly struck a social and cultural chord. You could also make the case that it has been doing so for decades, beginning with the 1996 WIRED cover story that put Black Rock City on the map with the tech community in the U.S. and overseas. I think Burning Man resonates because people are hungry for spaces to experiment, to get in touch with their humanity, and to be reminded of what truly matters. 

“Ta Kpe Kpe” by JOJO ABOT (Photo courtesy of the artist)

What does an initiative like this do to cater to people that can’t make it to Black Rock City? And what does it do for Burners that just really miss BRC?

Hitting pause on in-person events, not only in Black Rock City but around the world, made our global community even more resilient and innovative. Throughout 2020 and 2021, Burners around the world came together safely and virtually to support one another and share wildly creative experiences. Boundless Space is an opportunity for Burners to explore a wonderfully diverse collection of art and artists and to celebrate the wild creativity of global Burning Man culture. And for those in the New York area, it’s an opportunity to come together (safely) in person to experience a unique exhibition at Sotheby’s New York and join in a week of events, performances, and Gallery Talks October 2-7. Here’s more information about Opening Day and Community Day.

NFT of “Ascension” by Peter Ruprecht

Is this an especially critical time for the organization to be raising money, given the cancellations of Black Rock City 2020/21? 

Absolutely. We are a nonprofit working to survive after losing our primary source of income for two years in a row. Proceeds from this charitable auction will help ensure Burning Man Project’s long-term survival while also funding new and emerging artists around the world. Participating artists can choose to receive a significant portion of the sale price for their donated work.

Sotheby’s is of course synonymous with fine art. Does collaborating with Sotheby’s have any special meaning in terms of what it says about how the art and culture of Burning Man is now viewed/placed?

Burning Man art has been an emergent and provocative force for more than three decades, yet it has remained beyond the span of the traditional art world. We are not, however, seeking legitimacy from established institutions. What we are doing is experimenting with new kinds of collaborations in the interest of sharing our culture with an ever-widening circle of participants, while celebrating and advancing artists. We see the partnership with Sotheby’s as giving us new ground to test out how we might bring visibility to both artists with whom we have collaborated for years and artists who are new to the global Burning Man community.

In 2018 Burning Man art received global recognition with No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, a touring exhibit that, as you noted, broke attendance records at all three galleries where it was shown — the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC; Cincinnati Art Museum; and Oakland Museum of California. Having seen a positive benefit and audience response to our Smithsonian exhibit, this is our next foray into new arenas. 

Is there anything up for auction that you’re particularly excited about?

I love art cars, so I’m pretty excited that there will be a custom Henry Chang art car in the auction. They’re one of the most accessible art forms we experience at Burning Man. Art cars — or as we call them, mutant vehicles — can move through different communities, and always bring joy. I dream of seeing a purple “Art Cars Only” parking zone in every town!

A Megal Mutant Masterpiece (Sketch by Henry Chang)

Burning Man is first and foremost an experiential culture, and there are going to be some once-in-a-lifetime adventures in the mix. I’m pretty excited about the possibility of sharing some exceptional real-life adventures with the world.

The full digital auction catalog is available here. This eclectic and dynamic catalogue includes not just the auction’s featured artworks, but also the stories behind the artists who created them. Each participating artist has been invited to include artist statement, photos, links to their websites and videos. 

Note: Burning Man Project and Sotheby’s are NOT auctioning off tickets, camp placement, or experiences that relate to the next Burning Man event in Black Rock City.

Cover image of the “Rocket Car” by David Best

About the author: Katie Bain

Katie Bain

Katie Bain is a music and culture journalist based in Los Angeles, California. She has more than a decade of experience covering events, artists, and trends throughout the United States and beyond, and is currently the director of dance and electronic music coverage at Billboard. Her work has appeared in and on publications including The Guardian, VICE, Noisey, The New Yorker, Flaunt, and RBMA. She loves the playa more than most other places and has been to six Burns, including Israel's Midburn in 2016.

4 Comments on “Burning Man and… Sotheby’s? An Interview With Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell

  • Paul says:

    So how does this not violate the decommodificafion principle? I understand the need for funding but it feels like the Org has sold its soul.

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  • Kina says:

    If there is ever a hard copy catalogue of this, I’d love to know

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  • Gerry Mander says:

    Every one of the rationalizations given for how this was good for burning man culture are just as valid for individual artists and theme camps – but the Org regularly persecutes anyone who tries to do any fund raising of their own. You can’t have it both ways. All that art costs an enormous amount of money. Stop exploiting artists and breaking the rules when it’s convenient for you and being a hard liner when it’s not curated and pretty-approved.

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