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Burning Man Journal
All The News That's Fit To Burn: 2001 Summer Newsletter

The Life of Art

Introducing the Black Rock Arts Foundation

Artists represent a quintessential part of Burning Man. By and large, they form of class of people who live for their gifts, live by their gifts, and live to give these gifts to others. Certainly many other participant groups invest large amounts of time and money in the gifts that they contribute to our city. However, it is one thing to travel to the desert and live for a week in a state of perpetual struggle for the sake of self-expression. It's quite another to attempt this feat year-round. The life of art is never easy and the cliche image of the starving artist is too often a reality. Art is an exacting craft. Its skills are acquired over many years of constant practice. Yet, gallery berths remain in short supply, clients in this luxury market are few, and public funding for the arts has steadily decreased in the United States since 1979. Furthermore, many of the artists who create works at Burning Man exist beyond the mainstream of galleries, agents, or the academic world. If Black Rock City, as a united community, cannot assist its artists, who else will? Art may be a "luxury" in the wider world, but it is a basic currency of social exchange in Black Rock City.

by Jenny Giles & Phillip Bonham.
Photo by al Wildey —2000

Over the years, Black Rock City LLC, the legal entity that organizes Burning Man, has helped some of our city's artists fund their projects. We restrict this aid to projects that are interactive and support our annual art theme. In most instances, we also require that artists who receive grants be veteran citizens of our city who have created a community network to assist them. It has never been our intention to substitute the convenience of cash for systems of communal aid. Artists are typically awarded grants that cover only the cost of their materials, and they must then reach deeper into our community by staging fund-raising events and recruiting volunteer aid. Even with these limitations in place, however, the need for assistance has steadily grown. In the year 2000, we distributed $258,162.53 in grants that went directly to participant artists. We have, in fact, become the premier provider of such grants to artists in our hometown of San Francisco, contributing more than our own city government's Hotel Tax Fund.

Last year the result of this funding of art was immediately apparent to everyone. The central Promenade of Black Rock City was lined with many monumental sculptures, and nearly all of these works were interactive. Jenne Giles' and Phillip Bonham's Ribcage allowed participants to swing like birds within a soaring 17-foot-high chest cavity constructed of steel. Michael Christian's Windpipes formed an enormous bronchial tree, inviting participants to create music by forcing air though its internal pipe organ. Because of these and many other ambitious works, Black Rock City has become the largest venue for interactive and communally-based art in America.

Dr. Megavolt (aka Austin Richards)
Photo by Gabe Kirchheimer —2000

This is an impressive achievement especially since the Burning Man project itself has received only one small grant (awarded in 1991 by Capp Street Project of San Francisco) during its entire history! All of our funding to artists has come from our citizens in the form of ticket revenues. Black Rock City, like its citizens, has always struggled to be self-reliant. Since 1999, however, as participants have continued to organize and veteran artists conceive of more ambitious works, the capacity of our community to create new and impressive art has begun to expand exponentially. During this same period, however, the actual population of our city has increased by only 10% each year. Considered in a broader picture, this is actually very good news. It means that more veteran participants with creative ideas have joined with more of their fellow citizens to create many more art projects. It means that our community is more connected. It also means, however, that we have reached the limit of what we can contribute to this process from our revenues. Even with our limit of funding to theme-related art, and even with its restriction to community-based projects, we are unable to give more.

Lamp Mobile
by Carl Heiney.
Photo by Lady Bee —2000

This is why we have founded the Black Rock Arts Foundation. The immediate aim of this non-profit foundation will be to support the work of artists within the Burning Man community. Contributions will be used to aid our artist-citizens in a variety of ways. It will be the mission of the Foundation to furnish artists with direct financial aid for the production and display of interactive art works. Particular attention will be given to artists whose careers exist beyond the institutional mainstream. The initial focus of this effort will be on art that is produced to be displayed in Black Rock City, but the scope of the Foundation's mission, like our own, will exceed the Burning Man event. As our community expands across America and participant groups begin to organize their own events, this new non-profit entity will grow with them. It will seek out partnerships with other non-profit organizations and develop venues for the art of our community wherever it may gather. Always, it will strive to create a communal and a civic context for the life of art. The final paragraph of the Black Rock Arts Foundation mission statement reads as follows:

"It is the mission of the Black Rock Arts Foundation to promote a revival of art's culture-bearing and connective function by removing art from its context in the marketplace and reintegrating it into communal settings. In many cases, this will be art that is designed to be touched, handled, played with, and moved through in a public arena. It is art that solicits a collaborative response from its audience, even as it encourages collaboration between artists. It deliberately blurs the distinction between audience and art form, professional and amateur, spectator and participant. It is art that's generated by a way of life, and it seeks, in its broadest aims, to reclaim the realms of politics, nature, history, ritual and myth for the practice of art."

Dragon de Foc by the Mystic Krewe of Satyrs
Photo by Richard Jones

If you are interested in contributing to this effort, please write the Foundation at 3450 3rd St, Ste 3E, San Francisco, CA, 94124, email the Black Rock Arts Foundation at info(at)blackrockarts(dot)org, or call 415-641-0949. This is your opportunity to help our artists. It is also a chance to be part of an even greater movement that seeks to reshape the world of our daily lives. If you feel, as many do, that Burning Man has changed your life, isn't it appropriate to give something back to the life of the art that helps to make such changes possible?