Burning Man: Building inclusive, collaborative, creative culture
This interview with Marian Goodell, Founding Board Member and CEO, Burning Man Project was filmed at MuseumNext Dublin in April 2015. Matthew Caines, Editor of Guardian’s Culture Pros Network asked the questions.
Matthew: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the second day of MuseumNext. My name is Matthew Caines. I’m Editor of The Guardian’s Culture Pros Network, and I’m delighted to be chairing this next session, a fireside chat with Marian Goodell, Chief Executive of Burning Man. Marian has been involved with Burning Man since 1995, and is one of six founders of the Burning Man organisation. As Chief Executive, she oversees and leads the organisation’s $30 million plus budget, and 80 year-round employees. So, welcome, Marian – it’s great to have you with us. Thank you for joining us.
Marian Goodell: Thank you.
Matthew: So, this is a fireside chat, and while there may be no fire on stage, nor burning man, there will certainly be some chat. So, we’re going to have a little discussion for 30 minutes, and then I want to give you guys the power and get the questions over to you. So, have a think about what you’d like to ask Marian, and we’ll come to [unintelligible 00:00:58] a bit. My first question is a tough one, because given how I everyone I know who’s been to Burning Man always says that it’s an indescribable event, and you have to go experience it for yourself, I wonder if you could tell us about it, for those of us who have never been, or who only know a little about it.
Marian Goodell: I have a question – has anybody here in the room actually been to Burning Man? One, two, three, four. Wow. I’m impressed. Thank you for raising your hands. I actually expected to see no hands, so thank you.
Yes, how do you describe Burning Man? It is really difficult to describe Burning Man. Most people think Burning Man is just a party in the desert, and you can actually see from the photo behind me that it is a thriving city. It happens for eight days, and 75,000 people, it grows to 75,000 people on Friday. We open on a Monday, the Monday a week before Labour Day, an American holiday, which is the last Friday in August, until the first Friday in September.
We are really not like any other festival. We choose usually to call ourselves an event, because what we’re doing is bringing people together and creating a civic environment. Some of the particulars about Burning Man that usually surprise people, we don’t sell anything but coffee and ice, and the ice is so people don’t have to leave to take care of their coolers. Then, the coffee, we consider cafés a very civilised environment to engage with people, and so our main public space is our café.
The other thing that’s really unique is, we have no rubbish bins. We have no trash cans. People are required to bring and take away everything with them, and those principle … Those have now sort of created a series of principles that include radical self-reliance, civic engagement, civic participation, and different aspects of it that are not like any other events.
Matthew: Yes, and we’ll come onto some of those aspects in a minute, but when I was doing my research of Burning Man, these two words, ‘organic process’ come up a lot, whether you’re talking about it in relation to the event, the organisation, the camp leadership. I just wondered if you could talk to us a bit about that. Is that at the heart of Burning Man, and what does it look like in practice?
Marian Goodell: Well, it’s actually … I went to Burning Man in 1995, and I helped, started to help organise in 1996. In 1995, there were 4,000 people, and when I approached the founder, I was so fascinated by what I’d experienced in Burning Man that far back, that I was really interested in how I could help, and like, what was the point? I realised right away, it was organic, that in an organic way, something would happen – the organisers, who were originally friends, not even professional artists, would bring people together, and something would come from it. Then, they would think it through, they would solve last year’s problems, and decide how to move it forward.
And, we are still organic, with 75,000 people. We definitely have structure, but the lessons we learn from it, it’s a social experiment. So, we’re always finding the opportunity to tell a story again, and have people learn from it.
Matthew: Again, it’s about organic growth in terms of numbers as well, because how big is it now?
Marian Goodell: So, we max out at … We have a permit with the Federal Government; we’re on Federally owned land, and our permit is for 70,000 participants, and then we have another 6-8,000 volunteers, staff, law enforcement, medical, that kind of thing, so our real numbers are about 75,000 sometime on Friday.
Matthew: But the thing you said before, you kind of find that you couldn’t just double … You couldn’t go from 30,000 to 60,000 overnight; you have to kind of increment and introduce it slowly, because otherwise people won’t, kind of …
Marian Goodell: Right, so that’s one of my favourite things that we’ve learned, too, about numbers. If we have 25,000 people, and you just bring in another 25,000 people without a process for acculturation, without a place to learn the lessons, either from the internet or from the participants themselves in their camps, people wouldn’t follow the rules, they wouldn’t follow the boundaries.
I don’t believe the organisation’s job is to just manage all the rules. We’ll set up the framework, and then we really give everybody the tools to share the experience and build the experience from there, themselves.
Matthew: Yes, and we’ll come onto that, again, in a little bit, but I just wanted to talk a little bit about this idea of responsibility, because there’s a balance there. on the one side, you’re responsible stewards, you’re an organisation; you have to make sure it goes ahead, and people behave themselves, and whatever, but on the other side there’s also this idea that you’ve got to give responsibility to people, and they need to be able to do things for themselves, and I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about that kind of divide. Is that a conflict, or how do those two things work together?
Marian Goodell: Well, it really reminds me of Dea’s Takeover Day. We kind of look at it as if the organisation does all the work, year round. We get the permits, we bring the law enforcement; people pay tickets to come, and then what we expect for the eight days that people are there is that they’re filling it, that they’re participating; they’re bringing their stories; they’re bringing their playfulness; they’re bringing their art cars, and they’re the ones bringing it to life.
Then, when it’s time to go, we help with the traffic, and roll up the fence and put it away in the storage, and get ready for next year. So, we are really asking – we don’t call people … I know in England they call them punters, and there’s campers, and some people say the audience – we call everybody a participant. Everybody at Burning Man is a participant, everybody.
Matthew: Then, reading in your bio on the site, you also lead the organisation’s efforts to facilitate and extend the Burning Man ethos globally. I just wondered if you could talk about taking Burning Man beyond the borders of the event, and its global ambitions, and what’s going on with that at the moment.
Marian Goodell: So, that’s the area that most excites me, personally, we started in 1997, when the event was about 20,000 people, and we were in debt; we were on private land, and the county came and put fees on us, and we couldn’t even pay. Through the course of that, the Burning Man community reached out and said, ‘How can we help?’ We were initially a for-profit organisation, and we’re now a non-profit. I think you might call it a public charity in Europe, but we’re a not-for-profit, but at the time, we had people in Austin, Texas, and in Canada, who contacted me because I was doing the public relations, and they said, ‘How can we help?’
From there now, we have built a global network of leaders. They self-select, but we then interview them and we determine, we have leadership qualities that we look for. And, we have 250 people in around 160 locations around the world that are basically doing not just events, but they like to do community work; they like to do civic work; there’s a group that has grown out of Burning Man culture called Burners Without Borders, and they have helped in Peru, in Haiti, in Japan. They use the principles of gathering together, and organic management and leadership, and volunteerism, and they get together and then help a community, usually teaching the community how to do something, not just doing it themselves.
Matthew: Yes, and Burners Without Borders did some work with Hurricane Katrina, is that right?
Marian Goodell: It started from Hurricane Katrina.
Matthew: They just packed up and went down and helped out [overtalking].
Marian Goodell: And, they didn’t all know each other, and if you can imagine that Burning Man does something like … If this room, if everybody here had the same principles of working together, and half the room, without already knowing each other, went to go do a project, the principles of leadership and organisation, and waking up at 7:30 in the morning, and not having a boss, natural leaders showed up in this group. Large equipment, heavy equipment was donated to them, to get work done, to clear land, and from it, the group stayed for five months, and after they were done, they were so inspired by that experience – and it wasn’t the same people; there are some people that came and went – that they wanted to keep doing civic work.
They started with some projects in San Francisco, and then when the Peru earthquake happened about a year after that, some of them got on a plane and went to Peru. So, this is a very, very community based group; we don’t have a big office. There’s one employee in my whole 75, 80 person staff, there’s one person that is helping stimulate that work.
The other thing that you mentioned, too, that I forgot to say, is that we have 10,000 people gathering for a Burning Man event in South Africa, and [7,800] that do it in Israel, and different sizes in Europe, from 250 to 2,500 people. Japan, New Zealand. And, it’s coming from the locals, and we just give them the tools, the leadership tools, money management, event production, and they ask us what they need, and we help them.
Matthew: So it’s not franchised, like a McDonalds.
Marian Goodell: No, we receive no money from them; we fund it ourselves. The help, we fund ourselves.
Matthew: So, this actually comes back to an idea I really like about Burning Man – it’s this idea that what happens there shouldn’t, and it doesn’t, end where the event barrier ends, or where people pack up and go home; it’s about the idea of actually taking this back to your communities, back to your lives, back to your relationships, back to your work, even. I just wonder, have you seen this in any other festivals or cultural institutions, such as museums? Is that the way we should be heading? Have you seen it elsewhere?
Marian Goodell: Well, when you and I chatted yesterday, it’s been interesting to be invited here to speak, and my first reaction was, are you sure you want me? Are you sure you want Burning Man? But then I realised, when I sat through the group about play yesterday, and I was listening to the panel just now, we’re all doing the same thing, and what Burning Man does, I think is powerful, that I think museums seem to want to do, and can do is, once we can provoke people to engage with each other, it’s very real that if that’s a pleasant experience, and particularly in my case, a playful experience, you become, I wouldn’t say addicted to it, but it becomes much easier; you get through the barriers of daily life, where you put your head down and your purchase something, and you look away.
If you spend eight days engaging with people and saying hello everywhere you go, just because that’s all you can do, and you’re not transacting, you feel a lot safer when you go home. It reminds me that there are some of the different stories I’ve heard, that some of the programmes that museums have an opportunity to do, can do that. They can lift you up, make you feel more connected, and then you can take that out into your daily life. You actually may feel more inspired to do something maybe in your schools, if you’re a parent, or some of the stories that Dea was telling – the kids want to go do something; they want to test better in history – I really believe bringing people together and taking away the boundaries for connection, and creating a safe stimulus for enough of a period of time, there’s no way you can’t feel good about being a human. You feel like you want to connect with other people. It just takes a little … It takes more than just a small … You need to provoke more.
Matthew: I wonder if we could talk about art at Burning Man, because I know there’ll be a lot of people in the audience who work with art, and works of art. Put simply, how does it work with Burning Man, and how do you put it out there and allow people to engage with it?
Marian Goodell: Yes, so we have some … If we have time, we were going to show you some photos, too, and you’ll see that some of the pieces are really very large. There are small, intimate pieces that you can sit in quietly and play with, and we also have very large, 40 foot tall structures. For us, it’s about engagement, again. You can climb on pretty much everything. Just recently, a couple of artists have made things that they don’t want to have people climb on, and my response usually is, well, we’ve been climbing on art at Burning Man for 15 years – it’s hard to say ‘Don’t climb on me’.
But, we’re really unique – there’s a couple of festivals in the United States that take the art after the Burning Man, and they usually have to put a fence around it for liability. We have a ticket that says you may risk injury or death at Burning Man. Yes, and it’s held up in court once, where they said, ‘Well, this person was well-warned’. We have a guide that tells people that you’re responsible … This is self-reliance; you’re responsible for thinking, that doesn’t look safe.
The art is meant to be, usually, played with collaboratively, so there’s quite a few pieces often that, if everybody rides a bicycle together, it’ll turn the lights on and it’ll start moving. We want people to work together. In other cases, the art has been created collaboratively in different parts of the world, not just San Francisco. There’s a photo of a Ukraine piece that was really beautiful last year.
Matthew: And these aren’t all professional artists working together either; it’s the community as well, and with artists?
Marian Goodell: It’s a variety. It’s mostly not professional artists. There are some people who now have begun to make a career, because their art was so engaging, and other places, not just festivals; there are some businesses that’ve purchased the large scale art to display, definitely, which really excites some of the individuals. Some though, had a background in art and were just sort of struggling; some are actually working in museums. There’s a number of our artists that’ve worked in, like the Exploratorium in San Francisco, San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. There’s a lot of Burning Man people in San Francisco, but we have 40 countries came last year, and all 50 states came to Burning Man.
Matthew: I wonder if we could talk about some of the challenges, because we’ve been talking about that today as well, and it’s kind of a two part question, but what are the challenges you face personally? As Chief Executive, I know you’ve talked before about that, going from for-profit to non-profit has presented some challenges internally – I wonder if you could talk about those, and how you overcome those.
Marian Goodell: Oh, gosh. It was really simple when we were an event, an annualised event with tickets. Our tickets, the average price is about $390 US. We have a low and a high ticket price, and that funded all of our activities, and it was really pretty straightforward. When the cultural work started happening out in the world, we carved off some funds so that we can travel and we can help the leadership, but now, the work, the potential work, to do what Burning Man does outside of the event, the stimulus around community arts, we have won an NEA grant, which in the United States is one of our largest Federal grants, because there was a community that we partnered with to bring interactive art.
We’re asked so often now to either help develop Burners Without Borders, speak for different cities, to talk … We’ve been to the Whitehouse for a Maker Fair, Maker culture. The event now does not have the resources to just fund the work we’re doing in the world, so one of the hardest things was to go from being a for-profit to a public charity, a non-profit, and actually change our mind-set now and do the philanthropic and the fundraising that’s necessary to be doing the really fabulous projects out in the world.
Matthew: And that changes those conversations internally as well [overtalking].
Marian Goodell: Everything.
Matthew: Yes, really?
Marian Goodell: Well, because, you see this large city, and in this city are donors, and we are challenged not to just take donations. $100,000, for instance, was one of the donors a couple of years ago, and then he sent me an email asking for a particular spot in the city. The only way you get a spot in the city is actually, you fill out a form and you prove that you’re interactive. So, you’re rewarded by the way you engage, not by the money that you contribute to the organisation, and that’s still, today, yesterday, this week, a very real challenge, is for us to engage with the donors.
Matthew: And then there are challenges facing the festival itself as well. It’s been widely reported about the Nevada Entertainment Tax. What’s happened with that, and what’s going to happen with that one? Just explain it, perhaps, for the purposes.
Marian Goodell: Yes, well, we’re on Federal US land in the state of Nevada, and we really have to negotiate with everybody. We’re negotiating with a small town, which is a town of 200 people; we’re in two counties – we’re actually in Pershing county, but Washoe county is part of Reno, and then we’re on Federal land. And, if it’s not one group, it’s the other that wants money. The state of Nevada levied an Entertainment Tax a year and a half ago, and we worked for eight years, working with … We’d definitely go to the Federal and the local politicians; we invite their staff to Burning Man; we spend a lot of time talking about who we are, and they decided we’re entertainment, the same as a car race, major league baseball, concerts, and that meant a 10% tax on each ticket to the participants.
But, we’re fighting it. We feel that we’re cultural; we’re a very strong event for the state of Nevada, and so we’re going to spend the time, the money, the attorneys, to prove that we’re actually not entertainment.
Matthew: You’ve spoken about some of the challenges, but I always think it’s nice to reflect on what you love about doing what you do. What’s the best bit about being [overtalking]?
Marian Goodell: Excuse me. I’m sorry, I’m getting over a cold. I really apologise. I love meeting people.
Matthew: Yes? All over the world, and at Burning Man, or when you’re going out doing your global … ?
Marian Goodell: Well, I run a camp at Burning Man that usually has guests from some of my travels. There’s six founders that built Burning Man, and five of us camped together when the camps started, for our family members and now it’s a bit bigger. So, I actually don’t leave my camp very often; people are kind of surprised when I look at pictures – like, oh, my God, I didn’t see that.
I meet people around the world. I get to travel to Japan, Israel, Ireland – I was so excited to come to Ireland. I’ve been to London a couple of times, Amsterdam, Berlin. It’s not just meeting people that attend Burning Man; I really enjoy it when I can tell the story of what Burning Man produces, engagement, connectivity, and people come up and tell me their stories about the potential for creativity and connectivity to really change our lives, and to do it in our cities and towns, and not just from the festival, but that we have a chance, as society feels estranged because of technology, because of the way we’re building our cities, that a cultural experience like Burning Man, that gives people hope, even if they haven’t been, it makes them feel hopeful.
Matthew: And the idea of you telling the story everywhere comes to this idea – we spoke about this, but you said the word CEO, obviously stands for Chief Executive Officer, but for you they also stand for Chief Engagement Officer.
Marian Goodell: Right.
Matthew: And that it’s about going out there and talking to people, and connecting, and I guess others can learn from that.
Marian Goodell: So, when we decided, the six of us decided to start the non-profit, we thought we were going to hire an executive director from the outside, and so we structured everything in preparing for that. When we finally got everything done, the others – I’m the youngest of the six that built it – they looked at me and said, ‘You’re up’. I thought, okay … Then our attorney said, ‘Well, we’ve got this complex organisation, this non-profit, this for-profit that’s a subsidiary, and other non-profit, [unintelligible 00:22:17]’, and she said, ‘you’re really a CEO’, and I said, ‘Burning Man people are not going to like the CEO thing’. They said, ‘Well, you have to express yourself out in the world as the person that’s leading the organisation’. I said, ‘Well, I will do it if it’s called Chief Engagement Officer’, and everybody took to it really well.
The staff took to it really well; there’s never been a CEO at Burning Man, and there’s actually never been an executive director, even. So, I had to tread lightly into, from a loose, sort of very socially conscious, artist, creative freedom environment, and begin to formalise some structures so that we can get a lot of work done.
Matthew: I’ve got two more questions before maybe we could go through some pictures, and then I’ll hand over to the audience. I know people ask you the demographic, for want of a better word, question a lot, but I wonder if you could talk to us about the changes in the makeup of participants over the years. I mean, it’s well-reported … Is it fair to say there’s been a wealthier element coming to Burning Man of late, and how do you adapt to that? What’s your reaction to it?
Marian Goodell: Sure. There is a wealthier element coming to Burning Man. I swear it’s because there’re more RVs in the world. That’s been very popular. There’s, I think, Bloomberg and the BBC both picked up a story about the jets and the billionaires coming to Burning Man. It’s true – we definitely have [Sergey and Elon]. We also have beekeepers and farmers, and you can imagine, it’s the same, I think, for the museums – if you’re creating experience that is rewarding for society, you want all of society there. It’s just a question of different groups need different things, and we’re learning how to respond to that so that we’re not really eliminating anybody, and that we’re still something that is egalitarian for all.
Matthew: I guess it goes back to the idea that if you want this thing to be a vehicle for social and cultural change, you need to have people from all background there.
Marian Goodell: It’s got to have everybody. We have a very unique ticket pricing structure that some of the other public events and festivals say, ‘How can you all do this?’ 5,000 tickets are what we call … They’re not called low income anymore – I believe they’re called scholarship tickets. They used to be called low income and scholarship, and you have to fill out a form, and the staff read 8,000 of the forms by hand, in order to award. They’re $190, so if it’s 390 for the typical ticket, 5,000 people pay $190.
Then we have a high income ticket, which we sell first, which then releases, sort of, the pressure, and that ticket this year was $990, and that’s also 5,000. So, we’re setting up a system so that, at different income levels, that we are giving people access, because we really do believe it should be available to those that want to come and have the experience.
Matthew: One last question from me – I just wondered what the future holds for Burning Man. Obviously, you’re kind of enveloped in this Federal and State law and stuff, but what do you see on the horizon? What do you want to happen? Is it, it comes back to that organic process of seeing what happens and going with the flow in some way?
Marian Goodell: Well, I’ll tell you, the challenges we have are so serious and so constant and so expensive, that we are really trying to set ourselves up so that if the event goes away, that the experience of what is Burning Man can actually be stimulated elsewhere. So, around the world now, the larger events I mentioned, there’s still another 45 or 50 events that are 250 to 1,500 people, so we’re helping encourage those.
We are also looking at a piece of property near where the event happens, where we could build a centre that would allow people to engage in the principles that are Burning Man. Not really quite a retreat centre, but at least a place where we’re experimenting and encouraging a philosophical environment to support the value of what happens with Burning Man.
Matthew: So, is there a future where it doesn’t happen in Black Rock Desert, and is that the kind of … ?
Marian Goodell: I believe that we have to exist as if it would go away. And, in a way, that empowers us to even be more bold. If I thought it would last forever, I might treat it with some assumptions, and we have to value each year. We have to set up systems for the long term survival, and I think the future … I think the event will be around another five to ten years; I don’t know how much longer than that. We’re working on a permit right now to grow. The permit is asking for 100,000. I don’t think that that’s a practical question – we’re reaching beyond what’s practical for us right now.
Matthew: We’ve got 15 minutes left on the clock. I just wondered if anybody has any questions now, and then maybe we can do some pictures and things like that, if not. If you just want to raise your hand – I know there’s just one here. We’ve got the mic.
Marian Goodell: While we’re waiting for the mic to get passed, I’ll just move through a couple of these photos. The first one was the man. This one’s a temple. This temple was an international project out of New Zealand, but a couple of different countries helped build this. There’s a question. Go ahead.
Female Voice: I’m just curious – you talked a little bit about the more wealthy people that’ve started coming in the past few years – part of that, we’ve read all over about these, sort of, VIP walled-off camps that everyone’s got different opinions on. I’m curious if you think that’s part of the organic growth you were talking about, or if that’s a product of something different.
Marian Goodell: Oh, gosh, that’s a great question. You sound like you’re a Burner. If not, you’re definitely American. So, a couple of years ago, we saw something we hadn’t seen before, which were these camps that were almost like membership. People were paying ten to $15,000 to just fly in to their camp, and have the camp totally set up for them. It would be what I would sort of call the velvet rope type culture. Once we saw that, we’ve started putting things into place to not eliminate it, because I believe that it’s not about whether that system exists, it’s whether the people that are coming are actually having the right kind of experience.
So, we’re doing some projects in the organisation where we’re reaching out – in order to do that, that camp has to have had a leader, a production leader, and probably a philosophical leader, like this was somebody’s idea – it might’ve been a birthday party, bring their friends in from around the world. So, in order for that camp to have land, they actually have to apply for it. They actually have to have services like generators, have food brought in. So, we monitor all of those services so that we know exactly which camps are doing what.
We did it before, but we’re doing even more now, and we had a conference in March, early March where, if you were in one of those camps, if you were leading one, you had to come and attend this acculturation day workshop. So, in order for someone to have their fun party, they need to connect with the organisation, then we’re doing everything we can to acculturate, and if you don’t do it right the first year, you won’t get placement the next year. So, you won’t get the land; you won’t have your wall, and your friends won’t be coming. So, we’re managing it through relationship, and it’s working. We had fewer problems last year.
Matthew: Are there any other questions? Yes, there’s one over here.
Marian Goodell: This is also a temple. Each year is a different temple.
Matthew: Yes, every year there’s a theme?
Marian Goodell: Every year, there’s a theme. This year’s theme is Da Vinci’s workshop, and we’re actually facing the question about money straight on. We want there to be patronage, like there was with the [Dimichis] in Florence. So, we’re talking about it, and when we talk about it, it usually brings about some results. You have a question?
Male Voice: Hi, yes, I just wondered what your reflection on TED was, because as you know, Richard started it, and then Chris Anderson bought it, the franchise, and what used to be a conference for a very small number of people became a worldwide phenomenon, so when I say I’m going to TED, people say, ‘Oh, that’s that video thing, isn’t it?’ Do you see yourselves, in a way, are you subversive? Is there a movement which is actually more powerful than the TED model, I was wondering.
Marian Goodell: Well, that’s … Yes. It’s interesting, there are quite a few people that are TEDsters that also go to Burning Man, and they say something very similar, that often they’re like, oh, you go to Burning Man; it must be like TED. Burning Man is not really subversive as much as I think it’s a culture jamming opportunity, so you can take what you’re learning, and it really does affect what you’re doing in the outside world.
Where I like TED – I like the whole TEDx system, ideas worth spreading, and storytelling. We’re storytellers in a different kind of way. They definitely manage their TEDx system much tighter than we manage our regionals, right, the control. I’ve met Chris in New York, and Larry and I spoke with him, because actually, his staff, some of his millennial staff thought that there should be some sort of marriage between TED and Burning Man. There is a great relationship between us, but TED is definitely more formal. Their [inventation] system is more formal.
So, yes, I would say that we’re – not the anti-TED – we’re just a bit more playful, and playing out of the box. Does that help?
Matthew: I think just following up from [Steven’s] question, it’s that idea of going from something that was small and natural, and together, to something much bigger.
Marian Goodell: Oh, yes.
Matthew: Do you feel like there’s … ? Does that dilute the message? Does it get harder to push that out, or do you feel that, at its heart, it’s got those core elements that, back when you … back in ’95 [overtalking]?
Marian Goodell: Right. So, we can’t scale it if we don’t let it go, and so we created the ten principles in 2004 for the regionals. They were asking questions all the time – why can’t we have trash cans? And, what is this? What is that? So, we created these ten principles – we created nine, and then we teased Larry that he needed a tenth, and so we got a tenth one. We gave those to the regionals to use, and from that, if you story tell around that, we feel like you can let it go.
With TED there’s, I’m sure, ways in which they want their talks to be structured, but we see ourselves really as cultural, and we’re creating an experience more than just a storytelling system.
Matthew: Any other questions? Yes, there’s one at the front here, please.
Marian Goodell: Most of the big artwork you’ll see also now is being sold. There are no signs at Burning Man; you don’t know who the artist is. You have to come to the organisation and find out. This particular piece was actually sold before it left Burning Man, and is now in a place in Northern California, in the outdoors.
Female Voice: Is there was one thing that you think Burning Man can teach, or museums can learn from it, what would be your top thing that museums can get out of the Burning Man history and experience?
Marian Goodell: Wow, that’s a really great one. I was actually almost asking myself that last night when I went to the reception, and you and I were talking about it. Well, I guess it would be what maybe you already know, or that museums already know, and Dea, you were certainly talking about it – I think bring people together is very important. We are so … It’s so easy not to leave our homes; it’s so easy to just stay on a track, and we need more opportunities in the world, to bring people together in a way that lets their defences down just a bit, not just in a concert hall, but in a way that we can be playful and we can be ourselves, and we can let down our guard.
Museums are a perfect environment for that. The barrier should be lifted. It is a safe place. It usually has levels of engagement and storytelling about the human condition and being a human being and a person, that we can learn from, from any age. There’s a lot of pain in the world, and if we can bring connectivity and creativity to more people, I don’t feel a need to talk about where that pain comes from, and politics and religion – I know that we as people will go beyond it and just connect with each other, no matter where we’re from. I really do think museums are fabulous places for us to learn about each other, by looking at the works and engaging with the works, but also engaging in programmes with each other.
Matthew: You said before, and this is really interesting, that if the world went sideways tomorrow, and religion wasn’t the place for people, and [unintelligible 00:36:39] politics, and leaders, that it’s perhaps our, kind of, cultural, festival, museums, that system, that people might look to answers in that kind of thing, and that might provide some of the solutions.
Marian Goodell: I’m a student of mass gathering. I’m a student … I love parades; they’re a little different, but I really find it fascinating to bring people together. There’s an American film called The Breakfast Club, and when that came out, had just left high school, and it’s set in a detention room in high school. Five or six students of completely different backgrounds are forced together in this detention in the afternoon together, and from it come friendships and relationships. I really believe that we need more of that; we need more of opportunities to put people together, give them the tools, either give them the opportunities for engagement, whether it’s 180,000 people at Glastonbury, and I’ve been twice and I’m fascinated, really fascinated – it was a very …
Though it is muddy and a bit messy at times, it’s a very civilised gathering of that many people. I really believe that we should be finding the opportunities to bring people together, whether it’s five or 15, or 20, whether it’s for four hours or five days – we’re so terrified of each other, and we’re so easy to avert our eyes and not make eye contact with people, and the museums and schools and institutions really have an opportunity, if not an obligation, to bring people together into civic environments.
Matthew: Any more questions from the audience? I have a question about working … You mentioned Larry – I wonder what it’s like working with … Just, what’s it like working with him, basically, and how does that relationship work?
Marian Goodell: Well, that’s interesting you should ask that question. I came into Burning Man because I started dating him, so he was my boyfriend for five years. So, I went to Burning Man in 1995, and I went in 1996, and I was so fascinated by what was possible by my own experience, and I went looking for him just to tell him, and we dated for five years.
We’re still very, very, very close, and I love working with him. Like my new title, he’s, well, founder, and we were all kind of founders. He’s the original founder, so he’s the Chief Philosophical Officer. So, the most interesting writings you can find about burning man are written by him, because he’s the one who did the first one on the beach, and a lot of the organic nature came from him.
He’s totally self-educated, and has read about history, and psychology and urban planning … He loves English, Victorian literature, and he loves people, and he wrote the principles. So, when we have questions internally – recently there was something the staff wanted to do, and I was like, we can’t sell water at Burning Man – we can’t sell water, and they were like, well, we’re bringing these busses in now, and people can’t bring their … and I said, ‘you have to talk to Larry’. I mean, I know instinctually why, but his philosophical take is really reassuring, because what we know instinctually often needs framing.
Matthew: Yes. Last chance for questions, or if not, why don’t we just …
Marian Goodell: There’s a question.
Matthew: Oh, sorry, behind the podium. I couldn’t see you. Sorry about that.
Marian Goodell: Hi.
Female Voice: My name’s [Ashtan]. I’m an exhibition designer from Iceland. I attended the first Burning Man in South Africa. Thank you very much for an interesting chat, and to share this with us. I think it has lots of good messages for the museums. My question is regarding the demography, and you mentioned that you have a ticket strategy for low income guests or students, but do you know anything from the other countries, like in South Africa? Is Burning Man … ? My question is because one of the main challenges for museums, I hear from museum people, is that museums are getting a lot of the same type of visitors, and the outreach is the challenge. What about Burning Man? Are we getting lots of the same type of people? I’m thinking about, well, underprivileged people; I’m thinking about also the youth, the millennials – are they coming? Is it just lots of middle aged white people with arty interest? Thank you.
Marian Goodell: That’s a great question. So, we do a census survey every year. We do it on site at Burning Man, and our median age is 32. We start after the colleges, universities do, so we don’t have lots and lots and lots of 20 year olds, but we have plenty of 20 years olds. Our demographics range – I mean, my father, my stepfather both came when they were in their late 60s, early 70s, and that’s not unusual. We are actually asked a lot about diversity, why we aren’t more diverse, and are we doing proactive outreach?
Yes, and no. We’re discussing it. We’re making the opportunity available as much as we can, but I’m not going into inner city schools and pitching people to come to Burning Man. I know that some of the groups out in the world are. I know the South Africa group has done a lot to make sure that they are diverse, and I believe they’re more diverse, even, than the Black Rock City is, in Nevada.
Matthew: Thank you for your question. I think that’s all we’ve got …
Marian Goodell: I saw one more hand. [Overtalking].
Matthew: Was there one more hand? Sorry, I missed you. Okay, well, you’re going to be around for the rest of today, is that right, Marian?
Marian Goodell: I’m around [overtalking].
Matthew: So, if anyone has any questions, they can come and ask you.
Marian Goodell: Yes.
Matthew: But otherwise, thanks so much for talking to us, and thanks as well for the photos. If everyone could just join me in thanking Marian …
Marian Goodell: Thank you.
Marian Goodell. Founding Board Member and CEO, Burning Man Project was interviewed at MuseumNext Dublin by Matthew Caines, Editor, The Guardian Cultural Professional Network. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.