The Necessity of Patronage: The Economies of Burning Man and the Chelsea Hotel

Burning Man and The Chelsea Hotel, although different in so many ways, both contain seemingly Utopian economies. An artistic community where everyone shares all of their goods and a hotel where residents can pay their rent with a song are not economies that should ever be able to sustain themselves, yet they did and have for years. The key factor in the sustainability of both of these economies is not the art they are based upon, but the wealth upon which they are reliant. The economies of these two entities are sustained by their wealthier patrons who support and allow the participants contributions. This system of reliance places the entirety of Burning Man’s focus and art in the hands of its wealthiest attendees; the wealthiest 3% of ‘burners’ ultimately decide what the festival will look like because they are the ones supplying the bulk of the gifts and commissioning the artists. In the case of the Chelsea Hotel, the artists who lived there were only able to because of a similar cycle which was reliant upon the wealthy residents and guests. Both Burning Man and the Chelsea rely heavily on patronage from wealthy participants in order to sustain their cultures and personal economies.

Burning Man & the Gifting Economy

What began as two men burning a wooden structure on the beaches of San Francisco, is now a week long temporary metropolis of over 60,000 participants in Black Rock City, Nevada. A timeline history on the organization’s website details the festival’s growth and origins:!/1986

It began on the night of the summer solstice of 1986 on which the festival’s founders, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, decided to burn a make-shift wooden man attracting a crowd to the San Francisco beach that night. This crowd grew each following year until it reached the 60,000 participant filled event it is now. Burning Man is a week-long celebration of art, self-discovery, and community, in which all participants must contribute artistically to the community.“Burners” venture throughout the different camps of the festival containing interactive art sculptures, performances, and sub-communities, ultimately ending the week with a ritual burning of a massive wooden man.

Although the festival began in 1986 as something vastly different than what it is now, there have been core principles maintained year after year. The festival’s founder Larry Harvey made these principles official in 2004 as a means to connect and generate dialogue year round throughout the global network of ‘burners’. The ten principles are articulated as follows:

  1. Radical Inclusion: anyone and everyone is welcome and encouraged to participate in the festival
  2. Gifting: the value of a gift in Black Rock City is unconditional and the act of gifting should be done out of pure altruism with nothing expected in return
  3. Decommodification: there are no commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising present for the entirety of the festival. It is believed that this hinders the authenticity of the culture which values participatory experience in place of consumption
  4. Radical Self-reliance: importance is placed on inward discovery and exploring yourself within
  5. Radical Self-expression: importance placed on the abilities of each individual to create and contribute to the gifting culture
  6. Communal Effort: the support of creativity fostered through cooperation and collaboration across all boards of the festival
  7. Civic Responsibility: value is placed on partaking in a civil society as law abiding citizens who are responsible for their actions
  8. Leaving No Trace: in respect for the environment and the temporary city, all that is brought to the desert must be completely cleared by the festival’s participants
  9. Participation: every attendee must be fully participatory so that they can entice real transformative change in both themselves and society
  10. Immediacy: immediate immersion in to the culture is essential to reap all possible benefits of the festival

(For the official and more in depth descriptions of the festival’s principles click here.)

The ten principles give insight into the culture and spirit of the festival. When combining each principle, the economy that emerges is one unique to Burning Man. It is unique because the burners voluntarily partake in the gifting economy by attending the festival. They are not gifting out of necessity or because they expect something in return, but rather to wholeheartedly participate in the festival. All of the burners must bring everything they will need for the week to share within the community. There is no option to buy simply what one needs for oneself, because that would not be in accordance with these principles. Gifting is done altruistically in nature. There is no way to identify what is gifted because literally everything brought to Black Rock City is supposed to be a gift. There is nothing for sale except ice and coffee. What is brought ranges from the food within the camps to the interactive art exhibits built specifically for the festival. Each participant must bring enough for themselves and also, to be in the spirit of the festival, enough for others.

The gifting economy of Burning Man used to be an equal opportunity for everyone to share in what they brought, unabashedly, but in recent years the contents of the community have been controlled by the wealthiest attendants of the festival, ranging from supermodels to Silicon Valley CEOs. In the past six years, the amount of participants who make more than $300,000 per year has reached almost 3%. Most art exhibitions and the largest camps are funded by these wealthier participants, putting a lot of the power in their hands when it comes to how the festival’s focus for the year will be translated into what actually gets brought to Black Rock. For example, one year Mark Zuckerberg flew into the festival for a day to serve artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches to the burners.    

Another symbol of the growing wealth of the festival is the fact that an event that was once free entry, went from a $35 ticket in 1994 to $390 in 2015. In terms of expenses, one  must also keep in mind the plane ticket to Black Rock, as participants come from all over the world. Other numerous expenses include clothing, gifts, alcohol, and food necessary before arriving to the festival, because nothing is for sale during the week. Combining all of these factors it makes sense that the festival is more suited to support the wealthy participants’ contributions.

The Chelsea Hotel & the Art Economy

The Chelsea Hotel strived to be a utopia from its creation in 1873. Originally constructed as “self contained settlements that would meet every possible professional and personal need of its inhabitants” (Sherryl Connelly), it quickly turned into a luxury hotel and frequent home to famous artists. The hotel’s infamy grew after World War II when rent prices fell and guests began to include the likes of artists Jackson Pollock and Larry Rivers, poet Dylan Thomas, author Arthur Miller, and many more. Each room has its own story and its own star. Films were shot there by director Andy Warhol and songs were written by punk rocker Patti Smith. The intrigue of the hotel lies in the culture created within and how it was able to be maintained throughout the years. The culture within the hotel was like no other because of it’s residents. It brought together some of the greatest talents of the time, giving them the opportunity to create art together and feed off one another. The Chelsea Hotel catered to starving artists: those who were incredibly talented but did not yet have reward for their talent to live as they wanted. They were given the opportunity to use their talents as payment at the hotel. It was somewhat of a cultural mecca and a safe haven for those who lived there.

For a closer look, visit this link to the BBC Documentary on the Chelsea:

The artists were able to trade paintings and songs for rent. This was only possible because of the exorbitant rates paid by other guests. Those who accepted these high fees were usually the children of the rich of New York City or tourists that would pay any rate to feel like they were a part of the culture of the hotel. Stanley Bard was the man responsible for deciding how much to charge to each of the hotel’s guests. Patti Smith describes she and Robert Mapplethorpe trying to barter with him to pay the rent in her book Just Kids. Smith writes:

I unlocked our door and saw our portfolios leaning against the wall, the black with black ribbons, the red with gray ribbons. I untied them both and carefully looked at each drawing. I couldn’t be sure if Bard had even looked at the work. Certainly if he had, he didn’t see it with my eyes. Each drawing, each collage, reaffirmed my faith in our ability. The work was good. We deserved to be here. Robert was frustrated that Bard didn’t accept our art as recompense. He was anxious about how we’d get by since that afternoon both his moving jobs were canceled.

Smith emphasizes how their ability to use art as payment was essential to their survival. In order to keep themselves in the hotel, they had to utilize their skills as artists to try and pay their way with art. Without that option, it is evident that Smith and many other artists that lived in the hotel would not have been able to stay as long as they had. The ‘starving artist’ lifestyle was not a look or a phase for them, but legitimately something they lived while they were at the hotel.

Patronage & Psychology: why they work

In both of these structures the economies rely on two things specifically: art and the wealthy patrons. Neither would be sustainable if it were not for the relationship between the wealthy and the art. The art attracts the wealthy, and then their funds become so necessary that the art can no longer exist without the money they provide. Their rich cultures, in terms of aesthetics, productions, and success, would be nonexistent if it were not for the artistic contributions on which the festival and the hotel rely.

In order to participate in the festival at all one must contribute some sort of artwork. On Burning Man’s website it describes the festival as follows, “Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. In this crucible of creativity, all are welcome.” Even the vehicle in which one travels around the desert must be art. Whether it be car or bike, it must be considered as an artistic contribution to the festival. Even the art exhibits of Black Rock are considered as a gift to the festival’s economy because they are interactive and open to all burners. Art was the principal basis for the creation of Burning Man, so without it, thousands would not flock to the festival. The artistic nature of the festival was the first thing that attracted the millionaires who now control most of Black Rock. They fund the artists who create the masterpieces for which the festival is so well known, and without them the art would not come to exist.

Katy Boynton is a Burning Man participant who has been contributing to the festival as one of its most important artists since 2007. In the Burning Man documentary, Spark: A Burning Man Story, Katy and her story are featured. Throughout the years Katy has exhausted her savings creating art exhibitions for the festival and no longer has a steady job because most of her year is spent preparing for the festival. A key scene in the film shows and discusses Katy’s fundraiser, where she showcases her idea for her piece for this year’s festival, and asks for donations so that she can actually fund her project. This instance is a perfect example of how much control the wealthy patrons of Burning Man have in the execution of the festival. One of Burning Man’s most known artists must fully rely upon donations to create her exhibition. The reality of this is that if no one decides to donate, she cannot participate in the event for which she prepares all year.

Katy Boynton’s sculpture from the 2012 festival, titled “Heartfullness”. (Scott London/Rolling Stone)

The Chelsea Hotel would not have been so famed if it were not for its artistic culture. The art created within the hotel was what drew in tourists and the wealthy, the ones who provided the real finances to continue the Chelsea’s unique culture. It was a cycle of artistic creation, endlessly fostered and supported by those wanting to be a part of it. Without those willing to pay the brunt of the funds to keep the hotel running, those starving artists would not have been given the opportunity to foster their creativity without the burdens of rent and monetary dues.


Andy Warhol shooting scenes in one of the hotel’s rooms for his iconic film Chelsea Girls. (John Peodincuk/New York Daily News)

Despite that both entities possess an inherent reliance upon their wealthy patrons, the main difference is in the initial creation of the economies. Participants in Burning Man gift because it is a part of the festival necessary for participation. The altruistic nature of the participants is what makes the gifting economy so integral. If the burners were not willing to give, the principle of the gifting economy would die.

Psychological studies done by neuroscientist Robb Rutledge, and several featured in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, examined why the gifting economy of Burning Man is so well sustained in the spirits of the burners. The free and happy environment along with the predetermined subtraction of money from the festival creates an atmosphere in which people are more willing to be generous. Scientists James Heyman and Dan Ariely discovered from anthropological research that social rules followed when people exchange money are exclusive to monetary markets, unlike those followed in the absence of money. In the absence of money humans participate in a social market, in which all giving and sharing is done out of pure compassion. Because participants are aware that nothing is for sale during the festival, they come willingly into a purely social market.

The economy of the Chelsea Hotel is vastly different when it is closely examined, because it was created out of necessity of the artists, not altruistically like that of Burning Man. As discussed in Patti Smith’s novel and as articulated in the quote previously given, the artists began paying with art because they had no other choice. The term starving artist was tried and true for the hotel inhabitants. Most were not living off much, and what they did have went to cheap food and drugs. Using art as a payment for their rent saved most of these artists. Without this ability there is no doubt they would not have been able to survive the way they were living or create the culture of the hotel. As previously discussed in the psychological studies, the social versus money markets have an impact on behavior. Artists often knew they were entering into a zone where they could avoid interaction in a money market, so this allowed their creativity and their art to flourish. They helped each other create, furthering the general community atmosphere in which the artists thrived. This is why the hotel’s artistic livelihood was so infamous

Both Burning Man and the Chelsea Hotel have undeniably had lasting contributions to artistic culture throughout the world. The two entities drew in talents from all over the world, and allowed them to create uninhibitedly. This ability however, in both situations, would not have been possible without the consistent patronage of the wealthy. The money brought in by the wealthy patrons of Burning Man and the Chelsea Hotel gave them a lot of power, but also undeniably allowed for the artists to flourish in their environments in a way they could not have on their own.



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