Dance

Burning Man Strapped for Cash, Launches Auction to Help Stay Afloat

Burning Man in Black Rock Desert, Nevada
AP Photo/Ron Lewis

The Man photographed at Burning Man in Black Rock Desert, Nev.

The beloved desert festival has partnered with Sotheby's to sell art and experiences in effort to keep organizing nonprofit running until 2022 tickets go on sale in January.

While one of Burning Man's guiding principles is "decommodification," the famed desert gathering and global cultural network has taken a shift towards overt commercialism -- and with it, organizers hope, a step towards financial solvency.

On Thursday, Burning Man launched an auction with renowned auction house Sotheby's called Boundless Space: The Possibilities of Burning Man, which features more than 100 works by artists both in and outside of the Burning Man community, with a special focus on BIPOC artists. The items are open for bidding through Oct. 8 and include paintings, sculptures, NFTs, mutant vehicles and experiences like stilt walking lessons, with prices reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The auction came to life when hip-hop pioneer, visual artist and Burning Man board member Fab 5 Freddy told Charles F. Stewart, CEO of Sotheby's, that Burning Man needed to raise money after the coronavirus pandemic forced it to cancel two years in a row. For this auction, Sotheby’s has waived some standard fees, while contributing artists could chose to receive anywhere from zero to a significant portion the proceeds from their piece, with the rest going to Burning Man.

Burning Man organizers hope the auction -- the first of its kind for the San Francisco-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit -- helps them raise enough money necessary to float the organization to January, when it plans to start selling tickets to its 2022 event. (A January on-sale is typical for Burning Man.)

Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell told Billboard in early September that the event was in dire straits. "We’re going to have to start selling tickets otherwise we don’t have enough money," she said. "We have money to get to the end of year barely. Like, barely literally. We don’t have December. The auction is going to be important."

Like other live event promoters of all sizes, Burning Man took major financial blows during the pandemic, which forced the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 Burning Man gatherings in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. (The event, which takes place the week before Labor Day, is widely referred to as "Black Rock City.") These gatherings typically attract a crowd of roughly 70,000, with tickets ranging from $400 to $1,400.

Burning Man generated nearly $43 million in 2019, according to tax documents, but the 2020 cancellation caused Burning Man to lose 90% of its annual revenue, organizers reported. This spurred the organization to send out a call to donors in September of 2020, explaining that future events would be at risk if they didn't raise money.

During the pandemic, the organization reports raising $12 million in donations and major gifts, receiving a $2.7 million Federal PPP Loan, spending $10 million of their operating reserve, recouping $3 million through donated 2020 tickets (with would-be attendees donating the money they spent on their tickets rather than receiving a refund) and cutting their budget by $24 million.

"We raised money to survive, and it was not just to do it with the minimal amount of staff," says Goodell. "We believe our mission is to continue to make Black Rock City happen. You can’t lay off people who’ve been doing Black Rock City for 10, 15 or 20 years. That’s stupid. They’re going to get other lives, and Black Rock City will not come back... So it was really important that we raise the money and then were busy. We’re not just taking vacation."

Goodell says money raised during the pandemic primarily went to staff retention, with employees who'd typically focus on Black Rock City shifting to other projects. This included the revision of, Goodell says, "standard operating procedure documents, stuff they haven’t done in 20 years that was super old. Revising some protocols for emergencies, Bureau of Land Management protocols, documents we’ve been asking for internally to just shore up our systems and help with succession planning. We just didn’t have a lot of that."

In October 2020, the organization's focus then turned to the possibility of producing Black Rock City in 2021. Six months was spent on preliminary planning, until it became clear that the ongoing pandemic would force the cancellation of Burning Man 2021. (Goodell announced this cancellation in late April.) "I thought 2021 was a long shot," she says of Burning Man 2021. "I thought people were not yet ready emotionally, mostly. When we canceled, there was such a sigh of relief. Sadness, but lots of relief, so that validated that."

But despite this official cancellation, this past September roughly 20,000 people trekked to the Black Rock Desert for a Burning Man-style event widely referred to as "Free Burn" or "Rogue Burn." While Burning Man staff were not there in any official capacity, members of the organization were present at the event itself and also in the nearby town of Gerlach, Nevada, where Burning Man has an office and owns a significant chunk of the town's commercial real estate. Burning Man is building a 360-acre artist workspace on the outskirts of Gerlach and also owns the nearby 3,800-acre Fly Ranch, which is being developed into a space for the organization to host Burning Man adjacent programming.

As large-scale events get return worldwide, the possibility of Black Rock City 2022 is looking good. Until January, Goodell says, money raised via the Sotheby's auction -- along with several donor pledges -- will help float the organization through the rest of the year. In the meantime, she's staying optimistic that this could all be for the beloved event's best interests.

"I think this is perfect," says Goodell. "Two years off to rest mentally and watch the world change and actually recognize how important we are. Sometimes you do something so often and you’re passionate, but after awhile it’s not fun, then something comes along that just sparks you back into why you love it and your passion for it.

"That’s the way we feel," she continues. "It’s like, 'Okay, we’re ready.' We’ve fixed all the things we needed to fix; we got some things in order; we made some personnel changes; we’ve improved infrastructure, now let’s get back to it.'"