There were other challenges. How does Burning Man’s principle of radical participation translate to the “look, don’t touch” propriety of museums? And will the festival learn to speak the institutional language of “outreach and education”?
Those challenges were part of the show’s appeal for both parties. Touching will be encouraged for most works, and outreach is precisely what Burning Man is after. In the process, both cultural institution and countercultural event may re-evaluate their relationships to the mainstream. “That’s going to be a really cool outcome if the lines get blurred,” said Kim Cook, Burning Man’s director of art and civic engagement. “If we’re not so far out and the museum isn’t so far in.”
Ms. Atkinson, who recently attended her first Burning Man, contrasted that experience with the frenzied marketplace of Art Basel Miami, another annual fair of similar size and duration. In Miami, art is a product; an investment. At Burning Man, art is a manifestation of communal values, like inclusion and participation, that generate playful work emphasizing interaction and feeling over economics.
Those qualities make Burning Man art “less attractive in the conventional world of galleries,” Mr. Harvey said. “But at the same time the great potency of this is that it’s a social movement.” That said, some of the works are acquired after the event by cities or businesses. And Burning Man is eager to help its artists make a living beyond the desert.
The exhibition includes sculptures, art cars, light installations (including one by Leo Villareal that is part of the Renwick’s permanent collection), virtual reality experiences, jewelry and costume displays, an immersive temple (one of the show’s three commissioned works), and a documented history of the event organized by the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. The Renwick also teamed up with the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District to extend the exhibition into the neighborhood, where six installations — among them, a giant bear made of pennies and a bronze head of Maya Angelou — will inhabit parks and sidewalks.
Burning Man has bohemian roots and can be seen as a descendant of Dada, Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and the psychedelic Merry Pranksters. Yet the Renwick is the arm of the Smithsonian dedicated to American craft, and “No Spectators” celebrates Burning Man as a hub of modern maker culture. The Arts and Crafts movement was born in response to the Industrial Revolution, and Ms. Atkinson suggests that Burning Man art responds to the digital and information revolutions.
“Each time we take another one of these technological leaps, there needs to be a balancing humanist force that keeps us connected,” she said. The link between Silicon Valley and Burning Man in both proximity and attendance is no accident, she pointed out.
But what happens when art shaped by utopian principles and intended as a civic gift to a temporary city is uprooted from its native white sands and replanted within white walls across the street from the White House, suddenly subject to the scrutiny of critics, curators and busy tourists?
“This is the heart of the experiment now,” Ms. Cook said. “When you move into another context, how much cultural integrity can you maintain and insist upon?” The experiment she refers to is the expansion of Burning Man. In recent years, the organization — which has dozens of full-time, year-round employees — has been planning its long-term legacy. In 2011, it shifted from a limited liability company to a nonprofit, consolidating previously independent entities, like the Black Rock Arts Foundation, under one roof.
Since the Bureau of Land Management has capped attendance at the Burning Man event at about 70,000 people, the organization is exploring new ways to spread the gospel. Museums and municipalities are potential apostles. The goal is “a global movement which is not purely event-based anymore,” Ms. Cook said. “It’s as much about engaged citizenship and quality of interaction as it is about having a function.”
Burning Man and the Smithsonian have worked closely together to ensure that values are upheld while institutional needs are met. Admission to the Smithsonian, as always, is free. A licensing agreement lets Burning Man review signage and press materials and set guidelines for merchandising and sponsorship. Nothing with the Burning Man name or logo will be sold in the gift shop; no corporate sponsors are acknowledged near the artwork, though the Renwick’s exhibition is supported by Intel and the Golden Triangle’s by Lyft.
The Smithsonian is also enlisting local Burners, as the festivalgoers are known, as gallery volunteers to help interpret and enhance the experience. And a docent manual that Burning Man helped develop offers suggestions for promoting deeper encounters in the Burning Man spirit: “Think about facilitating interactions rather than simply sharing information.”
Here’s a look at several featured artists and collectives adapting their Burning Man art to the white-walled museum world. Ms. Bertotti noted that the work “takes on a different preciousness here.” But then, adaptability is a Burning Man virtue.
The first temple that the sculptor David Best contributed to Burning Man, in 2000, was not meant to be a memorial but turned into one when a young artist he worked with was killed in a motorcycle accident weeks before the event. The following year, he was asked to build a temple for Burning Man, which became a place to mourn losses and mark transitions. Burning Man has built a temple every year since, one of its annual traditions. It is ceremoniously burned to conclude the event. “The fire can heal and seal and protect something,” Mr. Best said.
His temples were an impetus for the Renwick’s exhibition. “I don’t know if I would have done this show if I couldn’t have David in it,” Ms. Atkinson said. For “No Spectators,” Mr. Best and his crew are transforming the second-floor Grand Salon into a sanctuary encased in ornately carved raw wood panels with a central chandelier that descends to meet an altar. “I use beauty as a trap to catch the most pained person,” he said. “It has to be delicate and strong at the same time.”
Mr. Best, 72, has made eight temples for Burning Man and several more beyond the desert, notably in 2015 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. “When I turned 60, I said I’m only going to work with people. I stopped showing in galleries,” he said. “When I stopped that game, that system of objects for sale, it freed me. I promised myself when I turned 70 I was only going to do priceless work.”
Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti
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