If this was a normal year, right now, thousands of people would be flocking to the middle of the northern Nevada desert to watch “The Man” burn. But it’s not a normal year, and this year’s Burning Man counterculture outdoor festival has been canceled along with many, many live events across the region. That’s taking its toll on the arts, the community and the economy.
If you drive about a hundred miles north of Reno, you'll eventually stumble onto a dry lake bed. Every Labor Day weekend, this barren stretch of alkali dust is the home of Black Rock City – the temporary metropolis that springs up from nothing for Burning Man.
Most people, at this point, have heard of Burning Man, but it's a little tricky defining exactly what it is. Some see it as an excuse for a drug-fueled week of debauchery in the desert. Others use it as a chance to get more in touch with their spirituality. For most people though, it's something else.
“The whole thing is a big piece of art,” said Jerry Snyder, a Reno-based lawyer who's gone to every Burn for the better part of two decades.
He's even participated in the construction of several of those art projects. That's what he'd be doing right now if he had the choice. Instead, the event, like most live gigs these days, is completely online. Snyder says the experience just won't be the same without the camaraderie of building an art installation.
“There's just nothing that builds a sense of community like doing something difficult in 100-degree heat and 40 miles an hour winds and white-out dust conditions with a bunch of interesting and fun people,” Snyder said. Burners aren't the only ones missing out.
Since moving from the Bay Area to the Black Rock Desert in the early '90s, Burning Man has played an ever-growing role in the area's arts and culture scene. In the last decade, art installations that were originally created for the playa started springing up in Reno.
Maria Partridge is with the Sierra Arts Foundation. She says canceling Burning Man has led to a noticeable dearth of all public art.
“I used to feel like Reno had so many things happening at any given time,” Partridge said. “You could go see music. You could go to a museum. You could go to a Broadway show. There [were] art openings. There were all these things happening. Now, I feel like we've had nothing happening.”
Of course, it's not all about the arts and community. It's also about money. Burning Man's ticket sales alone brought in more than $44 million for the organization last year. That's not counting any of the money the roughly 80,000 visitors pump into Northern Nevada's economy every year. Reno and neighboring towns are the last bastions of civilization before heading to the festival site, which means big business for everyone from car rental agencies and hotels to grocery and hardware stores.
Eric Baron owns the Melting Pot Emporium, a shop popular with burners that sells an eclectic mix of clothing and goods. He says this is supposed to be his busy season.
“We're not seeing any of the activity from festivals,” Baron said. “I can tell you that the Burning Man season accounts for about 20% of our annual sales. That's completely gone.”
That's a scenario playing out across Nevada, the region and the country as the festival and live gig industry has been slammed during the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent report from the Washington, D.C. think tank the Brookings Institution named the creative economy as one of the sectors most at risk from the pandemic.
It's something Dana Hale-Mounier knows all about. She owns Pacific Fine Arts Festivals, which puts on arts and crafts shows.
“We're hopeful for survival,” Hale-Mounier said.
Hale-Mounier says the pandemic has forced her company to pivot and find new ways to reach buyers.
“The survival of Pacific Fine Arts is going to be whether we personally survive and how we're able to manage,” Hale-Mounier explained. “We need to just develop and get going and hopefully we'll generate income that's not dependent on in-person art events.”
Still, Hale-Mounier is optimistic things will turn around. In fact, everyone I talked to for this story was hopeful things will get back to normal, eventually. But whether they can hold on in the meantime is another question.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.