Can Burning Man do for fundraising what it has done for art? A thought experiment about development.

De geldwisselaar en zijn vrouwIt’s interesting that Burning Man has recently made two significant appointments at approximately the same time: the first a new committee of volunteers to focus on understanding and supporting Burning Man’s culture of volunteerism and the second a Director of Philanthropic Engagement to develop revenue streams beyond ticket sales.

Volunteers, not money, are what created Burning Man and what make it what it is today. Volunteers, not money, are what power the regionals and it is volunteers – not donors of any kind – who hold Burning Man in the palm of their hand. I think it’s actually fair to say that money literally cannot buy what happens on playa and in regional events. Money can enhance it, support it, and give someone access to it – but Burning Man, both as an event and as a culture, are only possible because people are giving. To try to professionalize it is to kill it.

But if Burning Man culture is to advance much further in the world, questions of money have to be addressed. If we want the world to be more like Burning Man, then artists have to be able to make a living. Following passions needs to be, if not profitable, at least not an economic death sentence. And the economic barriers to access and engage with Burning Man culture, or with any creative culture, need to be brought down. As Scott Timberg has written in his book “Culture Crash,” western economies are moving rapidly towards a point at which engaging in art and whimsy professionally will a luxury only accessible to the already rich.

Burning Man’s new appointments are symbolic of both the value and the limitations of volunteerism in the current socio-economic climate. On the one hand, they can make amazing things happen. On the other hand, they are walking against the wind if we continue as we are with the economic models we currently have.

The point, then, is not so much that Burning Man needs to make money – although sure, why not – as that it needs to develop new approaches to funding for people, arts, and projects, that both support our community and that other people can use. Finding development tools that empower the kind of people who are our volunteers is the best thing we can do to support them.

Burning Man’s development office needs to create the tools that will answer the question: how can an organization that holds decommodification and gifting as core values fund raise?  We don’t have an answer to that question, because nobody does.


Michael Garlington: “The Horror and the Wonder”

Totem of Confessions by Michael Garlington. Photo by Dean Brian Baker
Totem of Confessions by Michael Garlington. Photo by Dean Brian Baker

Walking across the open playa near sunset, I was caught in an inconstant dust storm that would block the whole world out for minutes at a time, then suddenly part and open up, allowing a distant glimmer of the strange and surreal structures dotting the desert landscape.

This was the first time I saw the Totem of Confession: when it appeared before me, a tower of impossible images in black and white, then vanished again when the world disappeared in dust.

The Petaluma studio of Mike Garlington and Natalia Bertotti is just as variable and changing as the playa landscape, as they constantly move and rearrange both finished pieces and in-progress designs on a weekly basis. Their credo is to do whatever inspiration calls them towards at the moment – but working like that comes with a cost.

“We’re constantly having to clean up the studio because everything moves so much, and we need a clean environment to work in,” they say. “Honestly, art is 90% sweeping up.”

The day I visit, a large crew photo of the Totem of Confession was posted on a wall next to a concept draft of their next architectural project: the Spire of Babel, which will debut in Virginia in 2017, and which will be used as the prototype for “The Chapel of Babel,” to appear at a future Burning Man. A few meters away a dressmaker’s dummy stands alone, with the beginning of what will be Garlington and Bertotti’s next project, to be displayed at Art Basel: a pair of dresses which, when finished, will be as much baroque decoration as clothing, to be worn by the same model. It’s dress making turned into sculpture, turned into photography.

The magical and bizarre black and white photographs which circle the rest of the warehouse studio are the work Garlington is best known for, and represent that blurring of boundaries between art forms.

“With our photos, we’re building sculptures. Even just a person in an outfit, every created backdrop becomes a sculpture in a sense. So first we build it, even if it’s just out of cardboard and tape, and then we photograph it,” Garlington says.

It may be hard to believe, but everything you see in a Garlington photograph is really in the frame. “We are using Photoshop now, and it is very tempting to start putting on third arms and eyes, but so far everything is you see is really there,” Garlington says. Often that makes for novel and interesting challenges.

"Balloon Horse," by Michael Garlington
“Balloon Horse,” by Michael Garlington

“This picture,” he said, “is called ‘Balloon Horse,’ because obviously … and what happened was, I had the model here, and asked her what she liked, and she said ‘horses,’ and I said ‘how about a balloon horse?’ And then, as soon as I said it, I was terrified, because oh, now I have to actually do that. So we put together this set of balloons to look like the shape of a horse she was riding, and I spent all this time to make it look like it was actually floating above the ground.”


Theresa Duncan Hired as Burning Man’s Director of Philanthropic Engagement

2014San Francisco, Calif. — Burning Man is pleased to announce that Theresa Duncan will be joining the nonprofit organization’s leadership team as the Director of Philanthropic Engagement.

In this role, Theresa will lead the development and execution of a fundraising strategy which honors Burning Man’s culture of gifting while supporting its global mission. Theresa will manage the fundraising team and related programs, including annual, major gift and capital campaign initiatives.

Theresa is an expert in fundraising development for environmental and philanthropic causes. She comes to us by way of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA, where she worked for 13 years, moving up through the organization to become Vice President of Development. Theresa led her team at the Aquarium in securing $12 million in gifts annually and defining the strategy for the Aquarium’s largest capital campaign to date. A pragmatic optimist and lifelong advocate for social justice, the environment, and the arts, Theresa earned her Masters of Business Administration and her Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from California State University, Long Beach.

In 2014 and 2015, Theresa camped with Camp Monkey Business, known for their soft rock happy hours, an effervescent “bananaphone” setlist, and unpredictable monkey shenanigans. “The spirit of giving throughout the Burning Man community is abundant and imaginative,” says Theresa. “I am inspired by the possibilities that exist with such a philanthropically engaged community especially as the Burning Man culture extends off-playa to communities across the globe.”

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Photo courtesy of Matt Scott.

“As calls for Burning Man’s engagement in the world have outpaced our organization’s capacity, we have had to look seriously at our capacity to respond in different ways including philanthropically,” said Burning Man’s Chief Engagement Officer Marian Goodell. “Philanthropy and giving are inherent to Burning Man and we intend to build a department that supports our culture of giving in a wide variety of creative ways.”

This is a key time for the Burning Man organization to develop a flourishing fundraising operation that provides more support for projects in all of our focus areas, including arts, civic engagement, the global network of regional events and community leaders, and the annual event in Black Rock City. We’re excited to support Theresa and her team as they shape and execute a fundraising strategy that honors Burning Man values while bringing in the resources we need to make an impact on a global scale.

Get Playa Photos that Last 100+ Years at the Wet Plate Project

What did you bring home from Burning Man? Definitely a sheen of dust and hopefully new perspectives and friends and unforgettable memories. But how about a piece of metal with your image on it that will last for hundreds of years? If you were lucky enough to run into Brian Sullivan’s roving darkroom on the playa, then you definitely went home with a memento like no other.


For four years, Sullivan and his small crew have been gifting one-of-a-kind wet plate photographs to the people of Black Rock City. For those who encountered his project out on the playa, the 165-year-old technology felt just as miraculous as taking pictures on our phones. The old-fashioned technique transported us to the dawn of photography, in a place with as much artistic potential as that exciting era. (more…)

Kim Cook Hired as Burning Man’s Director of Art & Civic Engagement

Kim Cook Portrait-1

San Francisco, Calif. — Burning Man is excited to announce the hire of Kim Cook, the organization’s new Director of Art & Civic Engagement, who will join us at our San Francisco headquarters beginning December 7.

The Director of Art & Civic Engagement is a new role, created to align and increase the impact of the organization’s year-round arts and civics initiatives like Burners Without Borders and Burning Man Arts, including on-playa and off-playa arts programming. Kim and her team will work with artists and community leaders to increase opportunities for funding, collaboration and learning.

Kim Cook has extensive nonprofit experience in executing innovative projects that celebrate the intersection between arts, culture, and civic life. Most recently she served as President and CEO of the Arts Council of New Orleans, where she blended art, design, and technology to address civic challenges. A cross-sector, multi-disciplinary activist by nature, Kim has been the the Artistic Director of Theater Artaud in San Francisco, Executive Director of the Oakland Youth Chorus, and Associate Director for the Nonprofit Finance Fund, where she managed arts and culture initiatives across the country. Kim has a BA in the Performing Arts and MA in Arts and Consciousness.

Raised in Berkeley, Kim has long recognized and appreciated the role Burning Man has played in creating new social and cultural models, and in supporting and celebrating personal creativity. She made her first trek to Black Rock City in 2015. In her words, “Burning Man creates an environment that heightens awareness through action, that fosters moving beyond mental constructs and into lived experiences in ways that change people. Changing people and their practice can change the world.”

We look forward to working with Kim as she applies her valuable skills and experience to support our widening community of Burning Man artists and civic leaders. Please join us in welcoming Kim Cook.

Burning Man Takes a Look Inside

IMGL3864You can’t get to a particular spot along the coast in Big Sur in any of the usual and normal ways.

You can’t, for example, just head down Route 1 listening to the stern yet comforting voice of the GPS guiding you confidently, determinedly, to your destination. Because you will be told that you have arrived when you are right in the middle of one of the many bridges that span the coastal highway, and if you take the suggested right turn, you will plummet to the sea.

And you can’t just open a map on your phone and find out exactly where you are because … silly you … there hasn’t been cell service for miles. Many miles.

So you continue on for a bit, hoping for the best, hoping for a sign, hoping to be able to find a place to turn around, if it comes to that. But how many more miles should we go? We were due at a certain time, and that time has arrived, and we don’t know if we’ve missed the entrance to where we were supposed to be, or whether we simply haven’t come to it yet and should just keep going.

Eventually we decide to do things the old-fashioned way. We make a U-turn and return to the entrance of the state park we whizzed by earlier and ask: “Have we passed Esalen yet?”



We’re conflicted even just saying the word.

We know a bit about the Esalen Institute, more by anecdote than formal inquiry. We know it as a center of the Human Potential Movement, we know that it might be the high church of the religion of no religion, and we know that writers and thinkers and questers of all natures have come here on spiritual journeys. And while we would never question the motivations behind a spiritual journey, we’ve also speculated, as a schoolboy might, about the nature of those activities, both psychological and otherwise.

If you have to be someplace, this isn't the worst place to be
If you have to be someplace, this isn’t the worst place to be

And oh yes of course, we’ve heard that Esalen is spectacularly beautiful, soothing to the soul and body, a place of power and inspiration.

What we don’t know in this moment, though, is how the locals view the place, and the local now standing before us is a big-hatted park ranger who is already a little annoyed with us because we hadn’t come to a full stop at the guard station quickly enough for his liking. So we’re off on the wrong foot and now we’re asking about that Esalen place, and we’re not sure at all at how this query will be received.

“No, you haven’t passed it yet,” the ranger says maybe a little too loudly but thankfully non-judgmentally. “It’s about 20 minutes down the road. There’s a sign.”


Megan Miller is the director of communications for Burning Man. She is bright and engaging, and she tells us that she first came to Esalen at the age of three with her mom, who was making a trek from their home in Alaska to Mexico. Esalen was a stop along the way. It was supposed to be a brief visit, but it wound up lasting longer. Megan is standing in front of about 50 people in a large tent that is about 15 feet from the edge of a cliff that dives to the sea. It is dark, and you can’t see, but you can hear the surf pounding the rocks below. (more…)

A New Team for Preserving Burning Man’s Volunteer-Driven Culture

The Community Services team (photo by John Curley)
The Community Services team (photo by John Curley)

Burning Man is launching a new all-volunteer team designed to preserve and support Burning Man’s essence as a volunteer-driven organization and to teach those values and practices. I sat down with Burning Man co-founder Harley DuBois to learn more about Burning Man’s volunteer spirit and how this new group will carry it forward.

JM: What is the new team, and why is now the time to create it?

Harley DuBois: We’re in the third phase of volunteerism at Burning Man. We’ve written a manual that distills what we learned in the first phase, as we built the event and its culture. The second phase was about succession planning for the founders, bringing in new blood, not being ossified. But now, becoming a nonprofit changed the landscape. With our expanded, global scope and mission to create positive cultural change beyond the playa, we’ve grown so much that we need to recommit to who we are, and who we are is volunteers. Every one of us was a volunteer at the beginning, but the organization is evolving quickly. We have to infuse the spirit of volunteerism into everything we’re doing. It has to remain part of our DNA, or we’re going to lose our identity.

Volunteerism was never hardwired into the organization itself, because the spirit of it was so innate to the founders that we all had our own ways of doing it. Now that we’re reorganizing, we can hardwire in volunteerism. This new team is our first effort to do that. (more…)

Be a Part of the Artumnal Gathering

Dinner guests at the Artumnal Gathering, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Leori Gill)
Dinner guests at the Artumnal Gathering, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Leori Gill)

The Artumnal Gathering in San Francisco, California, is our annual gala celebration and the primary fundraiser for Burning Man’s worldwide public art projects. This success of this spectacular event entirely depends on the generosity of our community. The event features hundreds of artists and volunteers who donate their precious time and expertise.

This year’s event is sold out, which is great news! It means we’re well on our way to our goal of greatly increasing funding for our Global Art Grants and Civic Arts programs in 2016. If a ticket was not accessible to you, you can still offer a valuable contribution and enjoy the event. Volunteer!

Volunteers receive free entry to the Main Event (9:45 pm-Late.) Below are the current volunteer shift needs for the Artumnal Gathering. If interested, please email the Artumnal Gathering Volunteer Coordinator, Moxie, at

o  Event Load In / Set Up – includes heavy lifting   ___ 6am – Noon   ___ 7am – 1pm

o  Décor Load In / Set Up   ___7am-1pm  ___8am-2pm   ___ 10am-4pm

o  Gallery Load In / Set Up ___8am – 2pm   ___10am – 4pm

o  Catering Set Up ___9am-1:30pm  ___1pm-5:30pm

o  Catering Plate Clearing (during dinner portion of event) ___6pm-10pm

o  Banquet Clearing/Room Change (dedicated team of 10)  ___8:30pm-11pm

o  Auction Support  ___5pm-9pm ___11pm-2am

o  Gallery Support ___4pm-8pm  ___8pm-12am   ___11pm-2am

o  Check In / Door Support  ___4pm- 8pm  ___8pm-12am   ___11pm-2am

o  Coat Check    ___9pm-12:30am   ___12am-3:30am

o  Gallery Strike ___1am-5:30am

o  Strike Team – Post Event  ___2am-7am

o  Event Load Out – includes heavy lifting  ___2am-8am

Thanks and see you at the Artumnal Gathering!