Burning Man gone commercial? Prominent artist’s new works hyped by New York PR firm

Anyone who’s been to Burning Man will recognize the work of Bay Area artist Laura Kimpton, famed for her large steel sculptures of words such as “LOVE,” “BELIEVE” and “DREAM.”

Certainly, those words fit the event’s ethos, dovetailing seamlessly with Burning Man Principle No. 10, “immediacy.”

“We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers,” the principle reads.

However, it appears Kimpton, who’s in her 10th year at Burning Man, may have crossed a line vis a vis Principle No. 3, “decommodification.”

“Our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation,” the principle reads.

As it turns out, Kimpton has hired a New York City PR firm, which has been sending out marketing material about her installations at this year’s Burning Man, the massive and quirky celebration of art and human freedom that takes place annually in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The hype package from Susan Grant Lewin Associates touts Kimpton’s new works, called “@EARTH#HOME” and “MAGIC.”

@EARTH#HOME reminds festival participants that the Earth is their home and that Burning Man is a homecoming like no other,” the promotional material says.

As for MAGIC, well, that’s paid for by private equity firm founder Bob Zangrillo and Tony Cho, his partner at Dragon Global. Zangrillo made a splash this year with his Coachella music festival after-party, which attracted hordes of the young, rich and beautiful, according to the website Red Hot Society.

Reached by phone at Burning Man, Kimpton said she hired the PR company a year ago because her giant-word sculptures at Burning Man and elsewhere were receiving widespread media coverage via photo features that rarely mentioned her name. “I got a PR firm so people would understand that the words were Laura Kimpton’s,” she said. “The photographers get a lot of press, their names all over the place, but the artists never do, so I just felt that that was wrong.”

However, her decision to go the PR route was not based solely on desire for recognition: She wanted media outlets to be able to find her and interview her away from the desert known as “the playa,” so she could explain the ideas behind her work. “All my pieces all have political messages or earth messages,” Kimpton said. “I get to have these great interviews with people off the playa who get the message that I’m trying to say.”

That her publicist at the PR firm promoted her Burning Man art reflects the fact that she’s now at Burning Man with her art. “Having a PR agent is not just for Burning Man,” she said. “I pay him monthly and this is what I’m doing this month.”

In any case, the days when creation of Burning Man projects involved everyone working for free are over, Kimpton said.  “I pay for all my crew. There’s no commercialness out here, but people are paying for camps. They drop money for sound camps and sound cars,” she said. “There’s so much money being dropped out here . . . that the whole idea’s kind of been lifted that you work for free.”

To Kimpton’s business manager Beth Scarborough, a former director of art for Burning Man, the PR hype doesn’t conflict with the burner ethos, and is just “propagating the whole idea of freedom and expression . . . and taking it out into the world so it has an even bigger impact.”

And as Kimpton’s publicist Dan Schwartz explained, the artist’s Burning Man installations are not commercial projects. “Nothing is for sale,” Schwartz said. His work is intended to create more awareness of Kimpton’s art, and she’s not alone in extending her reach beyond the desert fest. “A lot of Burning Man artists are sort of expanding and going in different directions and taking their art outside of Burning Man,” Schwartz said.

Kimpton, in addition to showing her work at venues such as Art Basel in Miami and at solo exhibitions in major U.S. cities, in August opened a boutique in Fairfax, where she sells big-word necklaces and her own line of clothes.

Photo: Laura Kimpton’s “@EARTH#HOME” on the playa at Burning Man (courtesy of Susan Grant Lewin Associates/Peter Ruprecht photographer)


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