This week's resignation of Andie Grace (aka Action Girl) – who has been the face and voice of Burning Man and its Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter for most of her 13 years working for Black Rock City LLC (aka the Borg) – is the latest blow to an organization and culture going through a difficult transition period.
She insists that her departure is “not a big boat-rocking controversy,” it's been something she's been thinking about for years, and the timing is coincidental. “It has a lot more to do with where Andie Grace is now,” she said, than with what the organization is going through at this point.
I've known Grace for years; I believe her and I wish her the very best as she figures out what she wants to do next. She's got a bit of a cushion now that her husband – Tom Price, another longtime burner who started Burners Without Borders and Black Rock Solar before leaving the Borg last year to work for an environmental firm – is doing well professionally.
But I think it's a shame that the Borg is letting Grace go rather than elevating her, Price, and their generation of Burning Man innovators (including Will Chase, the current voice of JRS) into a position of leading the Borg and this culture, which would entail the six board members giving up some control and trusting others to shepherd this culture forward.
I’ve written critically of the manner in which the Borg will be transitioning Burning Man to nonprofit control over the next five years. They launched the nonprofit Burning Man Project last year, but with hand-picked board members serving one-year terms rather than something more democratic or collaborative.
And even then, the six board members retain full control over when and if the transfer takes place, determining their own continuing roles in the organization as well as the secret payouts they’ll be receiving for dissolving their ownership of the Burning Man brand.
Grace, Price, and a long list of others like them have embodied the soul of Burning Man for many years, keeping it cool while extending its tentacles off into a variety of intriguing and promising new directions. They are also more in touch with the large burner world than their bosses, which Grace demonstrated during this year’s ticket debacle with a blog post that defused much of the mounting criticism.
As Burning Man wrestles with its growing popularity and the population, logistic, and philosophical issues that raises, it balances on a precarious tipping point. If the Borg behaves like a corporation and treats its brand like a commodity, this whole grand experiment could quickly unravel.
Maybe it was just time for Grace to go and I’m making too much of this moment. But I also think it’s time for these six board members – most of whom are reaching retirement age anyway – to trust this community with the future of an event and culture that we all created together.
Steven T. Jones, aka Scribe, is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. He’ll be doing a reading and leading a discussion on the state of Burning Man, Tribes in Transition, from 6-7:30 pm on April 25 at the Bay Guardian office, 135 Mississippi St., SF.