Man on the Move

Burning Man will step across the abyss this year. Design by Rod Garrett with Andrew Johnstone

This is a big transitional year for Burning Man, a shift symbolized by the fact that the eponymous Man will, for the first time in the event’s 25-year history, be in a new pose: striding across a chasm rather than standing still.
During a long and deeply personal speech to Burning Man regional representatives from around the world gathering for a conference in San Francisco on April 1, Larry Harvey explained how he and the other five Black Rock City LLC board members arrived at the decision to begin turning control of the event over to a new nonprofit group: The Burning Man Project.
Readers of my new book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, already know that this idea was hatched last year and it grew in part out of lawsuits filed by board member Michael Mikel and John Law, the estranged co-founder of the modern event who received an undisclosed financial settlement to his suit.
But this first detailed public announcement of the creation of the nonprofit and how it will work wasn’t the only newsworthy aspect to Larry’s speech. He also revealed with striking candor just how bad things had gotten within the organization, announced plans to move into a new headquarters in mid-Market Street in about one month, and offered the first hints of how much money the six board members may walk away with for their efforts since 1996, when Law left and the LLC was formed.
Larry said that last year’s art theme of Metropolis is really the story of what Burning Man has become, and that this year’s Rites of Passage art theme is really about what comes next, which is why the Man will be stepping across a 50-foot-deep chasm from one pinnacle to another.
“He’s never been so precariously posed,” Larry said, noting that people will be able to ascend each of the peaks because “we want you to share in his peril.”
A sense of peril has plagued Larry over these last couple years as he’s struggled with how to value his life’s work – and ultimately, how to relinquish control over it. He’s felt the ground beneath his feet become unstable, like there was no way for this man to continue standing where he was, forced to step to new ground.
“I’m here tonight to talk to you about the next step for Burning Man,” Larry told the crowd of about 150 regional representatives and another couple hundred burners, including SF Supervisor Eric Mar, who attended the event last year for the first time (Supervisor Jane Kim, who is sponsoring a controversial Mid-Market tax exclusion zone that would benefit Burning Man, appeared at the event briefly but didn’t stay for the whole speech).
Larry acknowledged that many people feel that this is a troubling time in American society, permeating almost every institution, mainstream and countercultural. “Nothing feels sustainable. Everything we thought we could believe in has fallen away,” he said.
To illustrate the dynamic, and to explain why Burning Man must take this uncertain next step, he told the story of the six board members – calling them the “owners” of the event, but quickly adding, “I’m not going to get to say that in the future” – have been through in recent years.
The large audience was listening so raptly that when Larry paused, most of the room could hear the low sound of crickets from some electronic device in the front of the room, sending a ripple of laughter through the crowd and lightning the mood for a moment. He explained that the LLC was set up so that if any of the board members left the organization, they would be entitled to $20,000, presenting that as a pittance compared to their contributions.
He went on to present the LLC as a progressive organization in which salaries of the workers and executives are far closer than in most corporations, saying the lowest paid workers have always gotten raises before the board members did. “We were the most underpaid of all,” Larry said of the six board members, based on a comparison to other executive boards.
While BRC reveals more of its financial information than most LLCs, particularly on the expenditure side of the ledger, it has never revealed Larry’s salary or benefits, although he lives a fairly modest lifestyle in a rent-controlled apartment on Alamo Square. Yet for an event created mostly by its paying participants, in a country where few in the private sector are getting pensions, I doubt many in the audience shared Larry’s scoff at the $20,000 (he later called the sum “laughable”), which he repeated as he recited his 2006 conflict with Michael, whose ties to the event run deeper than all the other board members except Larry.
“What would he get if he were to leave the group, just $20,000?” Larry said.
That possibility and unanswered questions over the future of the event caused Michael to sue Larry to protect his interests in Paper Man, a corporation controlled by Law, Larry, and Michael that was established in 1996 to own the Burning Man name, logos, and other trademarks associated with the event (see my Bay Guardian story “Burning Brand” for more on that episode).
“It triggered a series of cascading events, and those began a rite of passage,” Larry said, his final words echoing this year’s art theme.
So they realized that the LLC needed a new operating agreement, but they couldn’t agree on the fundamentals and ended up in legal mediation. “It began to look like everybody would lawyer up,” Larry said. “It felt like the band was breaking up.”
On top of that internal schism, Law also sued Larry and the LLC over the same issue of the control and value of Burning Man, so Larry said they were forced to figure out the financial value of this unique corporation that ran an event that eschewed the very notion of commodification as one of its core principles.
“How much had it all been worth?” Larry said.
They brought in corporate appraisers to “think about what the pie will fetch then divide by six,” an idea that was as abhorrent to Larry as it would certainly have been to the vast community of burners who have helped give the event its value over decades now.
“It was against everything we stood for, everything we had practiced,” he said. “How could we sell our life’s work like a commodity?”
Even having a discussion like that, he said, created “a stew of fear, resentment, and distrust” among the board members. So they ended up in sessions that were essentially group therapy, trying to pull it back together, but that didn’t work either and there were often “raised voices and slammed doors in the board room.”
Finally, the organization’s most senior employees had enough of the family dysfunction and formed a secret committee to seek a solution. “They were disgusted with us and they were going to figure out how to run this thing,” Larry said. “In the middle of all this, I got sick, I was in bed for days at a time.”
The LLC was in therapy, and so was Larry personally, and he said that he told his therapist, “I want to get out of my role. I can’t do this anymore…I felt absolutely helpless.” And in the group’s session, he told his colleagues “I was angry at them. I felt like they’d let me down.” Then the mediator “suggested I was a control freak and I just snapped.”
With the supposed leaders of the organization seeming to be melting down, Larry said the employee committee even started exploring whether it was possible to wrest the event away from their bosses. But in the depths of the Borg’s dark night, Larry began to embrace an idea that burners have been talking about for years: turning the event over to a nonprofit, so that burners could officially run the event themselves.
“Why not act to change the world, a world that you won’t be in? And that’s what we want to do,” Larry said, eliciting applause from the room. “We want to get out of running Burning Man. We want to move on.”
Mikel and another board member, Marian Goodell, confirmed the story that Larry told about how it all went down, as did a couple senior staffers that I spoke to. Hence the theme of the workshop: collaborative leadership.
“Look around, you all are the Burning Man Project,” Marian said in a speech preceding Larry’s that emphasized the international presence at the event and the concept of collaborative leadership, which was also the subject of a burner-produced short film that preceded her address.
She admitted that the Burning Man tenet of “radical inclusion” is a difficult one that she sometimes struggles with in her leadership capacity, but she said, “Burning Man is an architecture for collaboration.”
But it’s going to be a slow process, suggesting that Larry might indeed still have some control freak in him, despite the fact that he says everyone is getting along great now. Around the end of next month, he said the LLC will file papers to create the nonprofit based on Burning Man’s “10 principles.”
In about three years, depending on how the new nonprofit forms up, the LLC will turn over management of Burning Man, while holding onto control of the logos and trademarks for another three years after that, Larry said. And that’s when the six board members will officially cash out.
“We will liquidate our ownership interests and it will be for more than $20,000,” Larry said, although he said the final sum won’t make them rich. “We won’t be able to live off of the interest or anything.”
Why the long transition? Larry said they were worried about power plays by the new nonprofit leaders, something their research into other nonprofits had warned them is a possibility. After years of the Burning Man community seeking more direct control of the event – from the Borg2 rebellion in 2004 more recent complaints about the original Borg – the news of it being turned over to a nonprofit is sure to be greeted warmly by the larger community.
But what about the slow, conditional changeover, and the big potential payouts to the six people who have already been getting the biggest paychecks within this participatory, volunteer-based community with collaborative leadership? Well, I suppose we’ll see, but if the past is prologue then the future is likely to be vigorously debated within the Burning Man community.
And if you’d like to add your voice to that debate, come to my next book readings and discussions – this Friday, April 8, at Books Inc. in Alameda or April 14 at the Stanford University Bookstore – and we’ll talk about it.


  1. Been hearing the rumblings about a new non-profit status since the playa, but I did have to double-check the date of Larry’s announcement anyway…just in case!


  2. I appreciate your report on this pivotal decision by the Borg Scribe. I have also been fleshing out the skeletal rumors I’ve heard over my 7 years in BRC by reading your Tribes of BM book which was gifted to me recently. It’s an impressive collection. Glad that playa fashion gets a nod as part of the way Burning Man is changing the world.

    -Dusty Bacon
    DustyCouture.Com ~ Your Burning Man Fashion Blog


    1. Thanks. I had even more stuff on the fashion scene, including interviews with Tamo and Silver Lucy, but alas they ended up on the cutting room floor as I made the narrative more readable and had to trim some of my tangents.


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