Larry Harvey: Artists deserve to make money

The founder of Burning Man talks about how the annual arts festival has become an alternative market for art.

An arts festival with more than 70 000 participants guided primarily by impulse sounds like a recipe for disaster. But Burning Man, held every August in Nevada, has its own internal rhythm, a unifying set of principles that include decommodification, gifting and “radical participation”, says Larry Harvey, the festival’s founding member and chief philosophic officer.

Harvey says he founded the globally renowned arts festival on an impulse in 1986. That moment of spontaneity on a beach in San Francisco in front of a small crowd of spectators encapsulated a spirit that still drives the event.

“Many people come for the art and stay for the community,” he says.

There are now “Burner” communities in five continents, including in Africa, where Afrikaburn takes place annually in South Africa’s semi-desert Karoo region.

Harvey is still very active in producing the primary event and picks the theme for every year (this year is “Carnival of Mirrors”).

“The art is my particular baby,” he says.

Harvey is concerned by the impact of modern economics on the value of art in society. “The art market is largely about commodity transactions,” he notes, making it more about the artist’s particular brand than about the work itself. 

The collaborative art typical of Burning Man therefore has a lower “market value” because it is assembled by teams of people instead of a single artist whose name is attached to it.

“I think the economics of the art world have grossly distorted art and made it much less relevant to people’s lives,” he says.

“We changed the face of festival cultures, because they’re all doing art now,” Harvey muses. The irony is that it has now created a new market for art.

The Burning Man Project, which funds artists building installations at the event, has widened its support of artists beyond the event to include interactive artworks in cities around the world.

Burning Man champions art by people with no credentials or recognition in the traditional art world. “We are a nursery for art. We are making it more possible for artists to sell their art such that they can live off their art. And that’s a terribly hard thing to do. That’s like trying to become a movie star!”

Watch the Talk with Larry Harvey