Burning the Man? Well, not exactly, at least not yet

Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, flanked by city officials, officially launches The Burning Man Project in August 2011.
Steven T. Jones

Last week’s announcement that Burning Man has become a non-profit organization got lots of uncritical coverage from the San Francisco Chronicle and other local news outlets, but the reality is the old owners are still firmly in control, as the Bay Guardian and the scrappy Burners.Me blog have been reporting.

It is true that The Burning Man Project, a nonprofit organization that founder Larry Harvey announced the creation of three years ago, is up and running and ostensibly in charge of “global cultivation of art and community,” as it put it in a March 3 blog announcement, whatever that really means.

But Black Rock City LLC continues to run the Burning Man event and control its vast revenue stream, even though it’s ostensibly been placed under the auspices and ownership of the new nonprofit, whose Board of Directors is still appointed to one-year terms by the old LLC board, which has permanent seats on the nonprofit board.

And any community accountability in that ownership arrangment is further undermined by the creation in 2010 of the ironically named Decommodification LLC, which owns the commodity that is Burning Man — its trademarks, brands, logos, etc. —  that the old LLC and the new nonprofit pays to license each year. It’s a similar setup to the old Paper Man LLC, a controversial arrangement that triggered internal lawsuits and set Burning Man down the path toward nonprofit control.

Kudos to the work of Burners.Me, which has continued critical coverage of an issue that I started covering while working on my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, but which I frankly lost the stomach to continue this watchdog role after concluding that most burners just don’t care who’s in charge or how much they make as long as the party doesn’t stop.  

Although the authority and community control of the new nonprofit may not be exactly as Harvey made it sound three years ago, his timeline is still holding fairly true: three years later, the LLC is now under the umbrella of a nonprofit, and three years from now, the LLC board members will vote on giving up control over the brands.

But Harvey is still voicing skeptisim about giving up control to the nonprofit, responding to critics of the latest move by writing, “The reason for this 3-year interval is that even we do not invest blind faith in the new non-profit’s workings, and we want to be perfectly sure that it can be relied upon, in the face of temptations that arise within any organization when dealing with power or money, to pursue the policies that we have practiced.”

How have Harvey and those around responded to these same temptations in recent years? Well, we don’t know, because they are refusing to say how much money they transferred to themselves in salaries and lump sum payments (which Harvey had frankly said three years ago they would be taking, and well in excess of the $20,000 cap that was created during an earlier controversy to limit their accumulation of equity in an event created by attendees) before placing the LLC under the nonprofit umbrella.

But Harvey did respond to critics by saying that the LLC’s finances will indeed to be opened up for public inspection for the first time later this year when the new nonprofit files its financial paperwork with the state.

“It has been asked if we intend to reveal the financial records of Black Rock City LLC. The answer is yes; that too will happen at about the same time as the Burning Man Project reveals its information—these two entities will then become a clean well-lighted suite of rooms thrown open for inspection,” Harvey wrote. “But I cannot guaranty [sic] that even this amount of disclosure will satisfy everyone. Even then, I suppose that some will look for skeletons in closets, or search for sliding walls that might conceal a dungeon.”

So I suppose that we’ll all just need to wait-and-see. And in the meantime, I’m still waiting for a call back from Marian Goodell, a Burning Man spokesperson and member of the LLC board, to address our questions, and I’ll update this post if I when I hear back.

UPDATE: Goodell confirmed our basic understanding of this transition, confirming that the transparency in the LLC's finances and thepayouts its six board members received won't be disclosed to the public. "There's no need to go back, everything is going forward from January 2014," she said in response to our question about fiscal transparency after telling us, "At the end of 2014, the financials for the 501(c)3 are revealed, and any attaching subsidiary finances."

That means BRC LLC, but not Decommodification LLC, which is not a subsidiary to the nonprofit. Goodell said the decision hasn't yet been made how much to pay in licensing fees, although the nonprofit has an exclusive licensing arrangement "and can set the amounts for others to use it," such as the network on regional events that Burning Man has spawned.

As for the general concerns about who controls Burning Man, she said, "There's never been any intention to give full control to the community." But she said that she and the other five board members have been responsible stewards of the culture and "I'm personally very invested in the success of it. My duty is to see this into its next iteration when the founders aren't necessary to be making the big decisions."



Nonprofits might not be accountable?

Posted by marcos on Mar. 10, 2014 @ 7:10 pm
Posted by Guest on Mar. 10, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

Let's follow the City dollars that flow to Shultz's SF Host Committee nonprofit and potential violations of the Sunshine Act:


Our Protocol Chief, despite Prop F of 1998 which barred municipal dollars from being spent on the protocol office or the chief's activities, received at least $250,000 from the taxpayers for the host committee and she's not held a single required public meeting of the nonprofit's board.

Shultz throws a party for diplomats and her socialite pals every December at City Hall, paid for by the host committee with City dollars. A 'follow the money' story ignored by the weakly Guardian.

Posted by MPetrelis on Mar. 10, 2014 @ 11:13 pm

"...most burners just don’t care who’s in charge or how much they make as long as the party doesn’t stop."

I think Steven finally gets it.

Posted by Chromefields on Mar. 11, 2014 @ 6:11 am

For a long time, I harbored hopes that Burning Man would live up to its ethos and highest potential, instead it seems intent on just being a great party dressed up in high-minded rhetoric, with top-down control and bottom-up creation of its assets. I understand why that appeals to Larry and Marian, but I still don't understand why everyone else so willingly pours so much time and money into something that offers them so little accountability and equity -- except for the simple fact that it's a great party that they don't want to end. 

Posted by steven on Mar. 11, 2014 @ 10:06 am

Oh well, shit happens. Let's not begrudge anyone a good party.

Posted by Chromefields on Mar. 11, 2014 @ 10:41 am

I don't. I love a good party and this one is the best I've found, one I will likely return to at some point, but probably not this year. 

Posted by steven on Mar. 11, 2014 @ 11:23 am

I think that we will see it this year for sure!

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I almost never leave a response,however after looking at through a few of the responses onn Burning the Man?
Well, not exactly, at least not yet. I do have a few questions for
you if it's okay. Could it be simply me or dows it look like a few of the comments appear like they are left by brain dead folks?
:-P And, if you are posting on other places, I would like to keep up wth you.
Could you make a list of every one of all youir shared
pages like your linkedin profile, Facebvook page or twitter feed?

Posted by Visit Wikipedia for more China Information on Aug. 03, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

As PT Barnum used to say, there's a Burner born every minute...

Posted by racer さ on Mar. 11, 2014 @ 8:40 am

one week in the year when the city is actually pleasant because all the whiney bad artists aren't around.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 11, 2014 @ 10:36 am

It's mostly techie douchebags now anyway.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 11, 2014 @ 7:55 pm

So it was better when it was just poor losers? Got it.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 11, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

So it was better when it was just poor losers? Got it.

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Posted by China and Hong Kong Information on Aug. 04, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

Is the author of this article a douchenozzle? I'm not saying that they are a douchenozzle, I'm just asking the question.

I think it's hard for many people to believe the honesty of the BM board's intentions. That's the skeptics fault. Having worked with the board, I was ceaselessly impressed with their desire to live the 10 principals. The author of this article cites nothing but attempts to make the org sound conspiratorial. It's such a tired tune. If Larry or Marian are such fat cats, cashing in on the attendees, find a picture of a single board members home. Or lavish vacations. The board has worked their asses off for decades and articles like this are such bullshit. If you have an accusation, make it. The vague accusatorial bullshit is so fox news style "I'm just asking the question."

Posted by Rich Porter on Mar. 12, 2014 @ 2:34 am

check burners.me for concerns

You also sound like a borg brown noser. Just askin'

Posted by Guest on Mar. 13, 2014 @ 8:30 am

I'm not just asking questions, Rich, I'm reporting facts such as Larry's announcement that he and the other board members would be paying themselves large secret settlements. Personally, I believe in accountability and transparency, particularly from an organization espousing principles like decommodification and radical inclusion, one that derives its value from the volunteer efforts of thousands of burners. You may simply trust them, and have more faith in "trust us" as an answer to important question about how these resources are being used, but I'm just a bit more skeptical. And after writing dozens of articles and an entire book on this organization, I'd say that my perspective on this shouldn't be so easily dismissed just because you're such a big fan of the borg. The issue isn't with my questions, or you're childish insults (what exactly is a douchenozzle anyway?), it's the lack of good answers to those questions.

Posted by steven on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 1:02 pm

Steven your belief in accountability and openness is situational at best.

Where were your demands for accountability of the nonprofits who told us "trust us" when their closed shop threw Eastern Neighborhoods rezoning and set the stage for the accelerated gentrification of the Mission?

Where are your demands for accountability of the nonprofits during this uprising?

When they are your friends, one set of rules applies, when they cross you, another set comes to bear.

"I'd say that my perspective on this shouldn't be so easily dismissed just because you're such a big fan of the borg." A borg is a borg is a borg.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

At what point, and more importantly WHO will finally address the issue of rampant unaccountable sexual assault against young, female burners??
Great party, sure. But who is accountable? Who enforces safety? Who can a person go to?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 12, 2014 @ 3:33 am

It's not sexual assault; it's just forcible role-playing.

Posted by Chromefields on Mar. 12, 2014 @ 6:44 am

If you define the word "art" in a burner way.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 12, 2014 @ 7:43 am

i love it

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