Fiery Passion Brings Burning Man to the Smithsonian

It’s not a desert mirage if you are lost in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada and come across a vibrant city of people and colorful art installations. Every year at this location, a community of over 75,000 people rise out of the dust for a joint purpose: Burning Man. Groups of these people form camps all across the ‘playa’ during a week dedicated to building enormous experimental art installations, one of which being a large wooden effigy that is ritually burned down. The self-sustaining temporary hub Burning Man is quite literally a hotbed of innovation as members adhere to its principles of “radical self-expression, decommodification, communal participation, and reverence for the handmade”.  

Over the next few weeks, an exhibit styled after Burning Man will go up in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Burning Man, which has a connotation of being a psychedelic environment, may seem like an unusual fit in bureaucratic Washington, which is known for being extremely urbane as the center of government power. Many of the items in the show can be played with or sat on as part of this new experiential museum branch. This concept seamlessly incorporates the idea of participation being a key tenant for the community in the actual Burning Man, which heavily promotes the selfless giving of a person’s unique artistic or visual talents for the enjoyment of everyone. “No Spectators”, as it is called, features several immersive and interactive installations such as a wooden temple where visitors can drop notes as well as a defunct bus that has been converted into a working movie theater. It also offers concession-stand candy, a parody newspaper blaring an “Art Heist” headline, and film canisters filled with treasures.

The exhibit came as one of the first moves by Nora Atkinson, who was hired in 2014 as a crafts curator at the Renwick Gallery. Because she partook in a Burning Man experience several years ago, Atkinson pushed hard to justify the exhibit to her new team. While moving from Washington state to the East Coast, Atkinson also felt compelled to bring a piece of West Coast culture to her new home. She remarks, “I appreciate some of the things I’ve found here in Washington, D.C. - about the culture and the deep history we have, and the national attention things garner - but it contrasts with the frontier mentality on the West Coast, where it’s really more about what you’re building for yourself.”   

This personal motivation appears to be enough justification for the Smithsonian to acquiesce, and it seems to have little risk attached. Because federal appropriations cover about 70% of funds needed by the Smithsonian, the museum has an extremely steady cash flow and can afford to take a chance such as a Burning Man exhibit. Private philanthropy bridges the gap between the rest of the money required by the museum, and these particular funds could potentially spike upwards if a new West Coast-style audience is now drawn to support the museum to a greater extent. Though it may seem unorthodox for a museum to be so interactive, this is a low-risk, high-reward opportunity to pioneer the museum industry and make a unique event that can only be experienced in person. At this exhibit, there are ‘no spectators’; just participants.