Burning Man event will benefit its new nonprofit, whose future role is still murky

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Michael Mikel, shown here in a scene from the film "Spark," will take part in a discussion about Burning Man tonight.

There’s a pricey event in San Francisco this evening “exploring the past, present, and future of Burning Man,” with all proceeds going to The Burning Man Project, the nonprofit vessel that Black Rock City LLC created to supposedly take over operations of this venerable cultural phenomenon. With the murky, ever-evolving plan for what that allegedly imminent transition looks like and what the new governance structure will be, the forum could shed some light on the subject — but I wouldn’t bet on it.

For my latest cover story on Burning Man and its leadership, which ran last month, I sat down with founder Larry Harvey and LLC board member Marian Goodell to discuss the transition at length. Even after listening to the recording of that interview several times, I still had a hard time discerning what the plan is, mostly because I don’t think they even really know at this point.

Even though Harvey told me “we’re pretty much on schedule” to turn operations of the late summer event over to the new nonprofit board next year, it doesn’t seem that the hand-picked nonprofit board will have any real authority. And the relationship of the nonprofit to the LLC — which will continue to control all things Burning Man, despite Harvey indicating otherwise when he announced the plan two year ago — is still being defined.

“I would answer that a little more completely by saying what we’re really in the middle of doing is looking at the structure for Black Rock City LLC, which is an event production company and its infrastructure and doing the outreach to the world,” Goodell told me, adding the six current board members will still guide the event and culture and that “we’re more necessary than ever.”

Some veteran burners consider that to be a fairly bold statement coming from a business that derives its value mostly from the volunteer efforts of the 60,000 people who create Black Rock City every year, and whose “10 principles” (prominently posted on the front page of the Survival Guide circulated to all attendees this year) include Participation, Radical Inclusion, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, and Decommodification.

In the wake of my last story, I heard from sources within the LLC who appreciated me raising these issues and trying to keep the organization honest and true to its principles, but they’re all afraid to speak out publicly, mostly of Goodell’s wrath. They said that while four of the six LLC board members do seem willing to give up some control over the event and culture, Harvey and Goodell have gone the opposite direction and seem to be expanding their control as they travel the world as burner ambassadors.

In their interview with me, both Harvey and Goodell made clear their indispensible roles in protecting the event from “meddling” by the nonprofit board and with sheperding the larger burner culture.

“Oh no. We are giving up managing the event in favor of managing the culture in the greater world, that’s what we’re doing. And we can hardly do it fast enough because we don’t have time to manage the event,” Harvey said, later noting the LLC could become essentially a consulting firm that Burning Man regional organizations around the world pay for services. “That’s how things work in the real world.”

Tonight’s event is entitled “This is Burning Man,” named after the seminal burner book penned by the host of the event, Brian Doherty, who will lead the discussion with Harvey and co-founder Michael Mikel, aka Danger Ranger. The 7pm event is at Z Space Theater, 450 Florida, with tickets ranging from $20-$125.

I’ve always appreciated Doherty and his book, which I drew from for my own book on the culture’s modern era, The Tribes of Burning Man, and he contacted me after my last article to say he was glad to see me raising these issues. And he did tell me that one of the topics he plans to cover tonight is “the original corporate structure and why that might be changing.”

Yet Doherty, a libertarian who is a senior editor at Reason Magazine, doesn’t really share the view that the burner community has sweat equity in the event and therefore a right to help guide a culture that has evolved significantly since the LLC was formed in 1997.

“I no longer approach the event with a close-focus journalists eye, but do still consider it a fascinating unfolding story not just of a bunch of interesting people trying to ride a tiger they've let loose — and this applies to organizers and attendees — but about the most fun thing one can do with your time. I also maintain, I know controversially, that in most respects any attendee should care about, the event has been in most important respects the same since it got its current shape in 1998,” he told me. “Yes if you are dealing with the bureaucracy or burning big art or trying to get it funded or working for BMorg, a lot has changed. If you are one of the blessed 90 percent who are buying tickets and enjoying or paricipating in a way that does not have to intersect any of that, well, you still have the same Burning Man us boring old folk had, and please enjoy it. I would say preserve it; you can certainly try to evolve it, but it seems resistant to change in some respects.”

That may be true, but that isn’t what Harvey told the burner community two years ago, when he promised to “gift the event back to the community,” a meme that was uncritically repeated and amplifed in the documentary “Spark: A Burning Man Story,” that is now making the theatrical rounds.

“Arguments welcome, thanks for caring, the story of how this thing was built is still one of the great American culture stories of our time, with characters as fun and deep and resonate of great pantheonic virtues as you'll find,” Doherty says. “This does not mean I worship them as Gods — merely respect them as representing virtues, vices, and concerns and ideas as old as human civilization.”

It may not always seem like it, but I also respect Harvey, Goodell, and the rest of the Burning Man leadership, even if I think a little more clarity and open public discussion is necessary now, so let me close with some more of their comments from our interview.

“We want to make sure the event production company has sufficient autonomy, they can function with creating freedom and do what it does best, which is producing the Burning Man event, without being unduly interferred with by the nonprofit organization,” Harvey said.

“That’s why you heard it one way initially, and you’re hearing it slightly differently now, and it could go back again,” Goodell said. “We don’t think it’s sensible, either philosophically or fiscally, to essentially strip away all these entities and take all these employees and plop them in the middle of The Burning Man Project.”

“So there’s directly administered by this huge collossus at the center,” Harvey added.

“That looks like the US government,” Goodell interjected. “We think it would look like a many tentacled beast. That’s what we’re all afraid of in the world, a government putting their paws into us too much.”

Yet it wouldn’t be a government, but a bunch of nonprofit board members and experienced burners who would represent Burning Man’s constituent communities. Harvey said something like that might eventually work, but for now, that’s not what’s happening.

“We might change our minds at any time, that’s our perogative, but right now we’re absolutely on the path that you heard at the talk at the Bently Reserve two years ago,” Goodell said.

“We are in fact relinquishing our control,” Harvey said. “We are delegating the authority that the partners held as executives to the staff that operates it.”