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Do We Have to Stop Making Fun of Burning Man?

Last week, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey announced that the company's 3-year-old goal to obtain nonprofit status had been realized. Does this mean we have to stop making fun of the event?

Laughing at Burning Man, the annual festival/haven for weirdos and weirdo wannabes in the Nevada desert is a pastime I have long enjoyed.

I lived in San Francisco for many years; I don't know about other cities, but SF is staunchly divided between those who live for Burning Man and those who loathe it. With its expensive ticket prices, hippie rhetoric and numerous pretensions, Burning Man is exceedingly ripe for mockery, if one is so inclined: The dust-, grime-, and glitter-cloaked naked bodies. The sweaty adults in silly costumes and on expensive drugs running around the desert with toddlerlike glee and self-satisfaction. And the music – the terrible, terrible music.

Last week, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey announced that the company's 3-year-old goal to obtain nonprofit status had been realized.

“On December 27, 2013, the Burning Man Project Board of Directors voted to make Black Rock City LLC a subsidiary and is now the sole shareholder of the LLC, which will continue to manage the event in the desert. The transition became official January 1, 2014,” Harvey wrote on the Burning Blog.

Having zero business acumen, I wondered what this meant.

Burning Man attendance has grown to nearly 70,000 people, each of whom pay from just under $200 for hard-luck burner cases to as much as $650. Some estimates put the Burning Man take from 2013's event at $23 million.

Organizers spend millions putting on the event, but for something the size of Burning Man, the company's expenditures are relatively low. Burners lug in everything themselves, from the water they drink to the tents they sleep in to all the entertainment. Yet few of them ever seem to complain about spending hundreds of dollars for tickets to an event for which nothing is provided aside from land permits and licenses, Port-a-Potties and a meager concession offering ice and coffee.

Several nonprofits associated with Burning Man have already been operating for several years, such as the Black Rock Arts Foundation and the Black Rock Solar renewable energy organization. Last year, I wrote a short magazine item about Burners without Borders, a humanitarian aid organization that started when some burners emerged from the playa and decided to go to New Orleans to help rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina and which has grown steadily in just under a decade.

If the Burning Man Project continues to grow, fueling nonprofit action around the world, helping to create cleaner energy and fostering art projects on both a local and global scale...should I [grow up and] stop making fun of them?

Since the entire organization is now a nonprofit, will millions be funnelled into these burner-related nonprofits? Could Burning Man, that glittery, drug-fueled artsy-fartsy mess, seriously change the world?

Maybe, but it's not likely. At least not any more than it is already.

According to a gushy blog on the Huffington Post, “The nonprofit is already making a significant impact. Its members are working with Zappos founder Tony Hsieh to help inject arts and innovation into the growing technology hub in downtown Las Vegas. It's spearheading efforts like YES Spacecraft, which promotes children's participation in large-scale art projects, and Big Art For Small Towns, which brings public art installations to local communities. And it's supporting other do-gooder groups with Burning Man roots, like Burners Without Borders, which facilitates volunteerism around the world, and Black Rock Solar, which provides solar power to poor towns in rural Nevada.”

On the Burning Blog, Harvey said, “Now more than ever we’re positioned to support the global cultivation of art and community based on the 10 Principles. An LLC is not designed to meet the needs of our growing culture and it wouldn’t survive beyond the founders’ lifetime. Our mission has always been to serve the community, and a non-profit public benefit corporation is the most socially responsible option to ensure and protect the future of Burning Man.”

Some disgruntled burners, including San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter Steven T. Jones, call the new business structure a “bait and switch,” however.

“Not only are The Burning Man Project board members still not representative of the overall community, but they have no authority over the event, which Larry wants to continue as is 'without being unduly interfered with by the nonprofit organization,'” Jones wrote. “Sure, the LLC and its various fiefdoms can unilaterally change its contracts with artists, its policy on what kinds and how many art cars to license, its ticket pricing structure, and size of the city (the max population this year jumped to 68,000 from 60,000 last year), all without any input from the community. It can cut lucrative side deals with corporations and propagandists. But we can’t have the new nonprofit board making these sorts of decisions, that would be unthinkable.”

Although originally described by Harvey as a move that would essentially “gift” Burning Man back to the community, Jones wrote over the summer, Harvey told him, “The nonprofit is going well, and then we have to work out the terms of the relationship between the event and the nonprofit. We want the event to be protected from undue meddling and we want it to be a good fit.”

Responding to commenters on his blog, Harvey said on March 3:

“The truth is that the Burning Man Project now employs all but one of the former owners of Black Rock City LLC. This means we have surrendered all rights of ownership. Formerly, as owners of a private business, my partners and I possessed the unhindered right to do whatever we chose to do with revenues generated by our enterprise, but this is no longer the case. As employees of the new non-profit, we are now subject to federal standards regarding private inurement. And this means, among other things, that we have no right to pocket profits garnered by our former business, which, given the event’s potential for growth, could amount to a great deal of money. Furthermore, any future salaries we receive as employees of the Burning Man Project must be commensurate with compensation received by employees who work for similar non-profits. To put this even more bluntly: if we expect anything further once this transfer is completed, we must sing for our supper; our days as capitalists will be over.”

Harvey's comment is sandwiched in a towering pile of burner comments ranging from congratulatory to suspicious. Trying to figure out who was right was giving me a headache until I found comfort in the words of Jones, who in one of his many Burning Man stories, said he had resigned himself to the fact that no one cares where the Burning Man dollars go as long as the party rages on: “I’m just going to enjoy myself this year and forever after, safe in the faith that 'participation' and 'radical self-reliance' are things I do in my own camp and immediate surroundings, and that the larger Burning Man project itself is in the same safe and benevolent hands that it’s always been and always will be. Amen.”

What does this mean for nonburner haterz? With the claims of saintly altruism assuaged, we can continue to make fun of Burning Man if we want to. Hallelujah and praise Him.