The next generation
Is The Generator Phase 2, a potential land deal between the city and a Burning Man-affiliated arts organization, good for Reno?
Matt Schultz is a dreamer. He’s a utopian idealist who imagines big projects, speaks with infectious enthusiasm, and rallies people to join his causes. He’s led the construction of massive art pieces for the annual Burning Man festival. He’s the executive director of The Generator, a nonprofit collaborative artists’ workspace in Sparks. But after four hours at a Reno City Council meeting on January 28, he seemed uncharacteristically exhausted and disheartened.
He was at the meeting to pitch a land deal to the council. The deal, which he calls Generator Phase 2, would allow The Generator to lease a parcel of land from the city for $1 a year for five years, and then to buy the land for $860,000. In exchange, The Generator would develop a sculpture park, a community garden, and a 50,000-foot artists’ workspace on the parcel, which is along the railroad tracks near Chism Street west of downtown.
“It was really amazing, but a little frustrating,” said Schultz a week later. It was amazing, he said, because many of the council members, including Mayor Hillary Schieve, were supportive of the project, but frustrating for him because other council members, as well as property owners from the neighborhood, had questions and concerns.
The council eventually voted to postpone making a decision about the project until after Schultz and other members of The Generator could develop more details of their financial plan and address the concerns of the nearby property owners. Michael Stewart, who owns a warehouse in the area, was concerned about how the park might affect access to his building, which is for sale. Those concerns might change the exact dimensions of the parcel and other details, but are unlikely to derail the project.
However, Councilmember Jenny Brekhus raised some other questions—among them, how are other local arts organizations going to react to this deal?
“This is not unique to the Generator—this is applicable to anyone who got a public-private partnership during the heyday of our redevelopment activities,” she said in a recent phone interview. “When you pick one, particularly in a noncompetitive way, particularly when it’s not an open process—someone just walks in and you pick them—it does make other people wonder, ’Well, what about me? Where do I stand?’”Burning questions
Schultz grew up around Truckee and Tahoe. He went to school in Arizona and worked in the Bay Area before moving to Reno. In 2008, he was an artist and filmmaker, but was working for an advertising company. And then, after the economic downturn, he was laid off.
“Like the rest of my generation, there were no job prospects for about two years while the economy was completely destroyed, so a lot of us decided to create our own jobs, our own worlds,” he said.
After what he says was a decade of avoiding the event, he went to Burning Man for the first time. “For me, it was a place where a bunch of regular people can make art and have a chance to be seen by a world that cared about art.”
It was a life-changing event. He and his friends began making large-scale artworks, like a long pier, a giant shipwreck, and then last year, the largest yet, “Embrace,” an enormous wooden sculpture of two figures sharing a hug. The piece cost $250,000 and over 100 volunteers spent hundreds of hours working on it. The artists burned the piece down at the festival last year. Like other charismatic idealists, Schultz is prone to wax philosophic.
“If it’s a one in 10,000 chance of inspiring the next Da Vinci to start the next renaissance in Reno, then that’s worth it,” he said. “For us, tying together the engineer, the artist and the scientist in a city, and saying everyone can build the world they envision, and supporting that message with every tool we can find, all the space we can find, every bit of inspiration we can have—someone is going to change the world in a very positive way on their own. And the only thing we ask from the city is a piece of land that up until two weeks ago no one cared about, next to a railroad track with a whole bunch of gravel and liquor bottles covering it.”
Brekhus said she was supportive of an earlier proposal from the group to install sculptures on the parcel, but that the project has become more elaborate and is missing important documents and plans.
“There wasn’t a development plan or a pro forma,” she said. “I wanted a more concrete plan of what they want to do. When you go out and sell property in this manner … you have to be clear that you’re achieving a community benefit. While I think they’re a good group and have a lot of support and have demonstrated an ability to do some really interesting things in keeping with our community’s overall arts and culture revitalization, it was just unclear to me that they were being held to a standard of deliverables that we would expect for the benefit that they were going to get for that property transaction. That’s why I voted and agreed that they should be sent back to work out a little bit more specificity.”
The Generator’s current 34,000-foot location in Sparks is, according to Schultz, full. Over 50 resident artists work there. It’s been the construction site of over 60 large art projects, including 30 international projects, by artists from places like Lithuania, the Czech Republic, South Africa and South Korea. Most of the projects are constructed for Burning Man, but The Generator has also worked with schools and other organizations in the area, including Vaughn Middle School and Hug High School, and the Good Luck Macbeth theater company.
The Generator receives $330,000 annually from an angel, Paul Buchheit, the inventor of Gmail, and a man partly famous for coining Google’s simple, memorable motto: “Don’t be evil.”
“My hope is to capture some of that same magic that you have at Burning Man or on some of these projects where you bring together people from all over the community,” said Buchheit in a recent phone interview. “You have a lawyer and a homeless guy working together on a project as peers. I think that really transforms things in a more fundamental way than is readily apparent, because it isn’t somewhere you go just to buy something. It’s a place where people can go to share what they love and be inspired by other people.”
“We don’t have one funder,” said Schultz. “This year, we had 571 funders.” But most of those donors gave small donations, mostly Kickstarter contributions for individual projects. Two-thirds of The Generator’s funds come from Buchheit.
“I wonder if that model is sustainable,” said Tim Conder, a local artist, small business owner, and the owner of Cuddleworks, a for-profit artists’ space, where artists can rent individual studios. “The question that comes to my mind when I think about spaces that are privately funded by an anonymous outside donor is, so, you provide all this access to all these artists in this community free of charge, and at some point, someone looks at that line item on a bank statement somewhere in California, and says, ’This doesn’t make sense for me anymore.’ All of a sudden, the artists and creative types who have grown accustomed to that free access are put out—just on a whim. What does that do to an arts community?”
For his part, Buchheit does seem to have a lot of passion for the project. “This is obviously a project that we’ve invested a lot of time and everything else into, so I want it to be a success,” he said. “I want to see it be a success, and to me this is the next stage in that evolution. I think that it’s an opportunity for Reno and the whole community to create something that has really never existed. … What’s most important to me is to see that community support. It has to come from the community, ultimately. I can help out in my own way, but ultimately, really, the whole thing comes from the community. It’s just a matter of giving that extra little push from the start.”
“Ultimately, nearly every single nonprofit in America, their sustainability is based exclusively on donations,” said Schultz. “Boys & Girls Club of America is one of many nonprofits who sustain the majority of their interactions through yearly donations. Most American nonprofits get less than 10 percent of their revenue from recurring revenue or sales. A large body of nonprofits in this nation are built around the idea that nonprofits are providing something for the civic good. That’s why the tax code is there. … Any business, any investor, any park, any entity has a chance in time where their primary financing will run out. As we work to make this land happen, we’re able to diversify our own investment funds. We grow into this land, and we create a larger donor base. Having a public-private partnership with the city makes it so our nonprofit is more favorable to other granting entities, both private and public.”Radical exclusion
Burning Man is one of the biggest arts festivals in the world, and it attracts millions of dollars and international attention to Northern Nevada. But some local artists resent focusing the city’s art community toward the festival during the other 51 weeks every year. There’s also the perception that Burning Man artists are carpetbaggers. After all, Burning Man is not a Northern Nevada venture; it’s a Bay Area venture that happens to take place in Northern Nevada.
One main principle of Burning Man is “radical inclusion,” but now that the tickets sell out every year, they’re a rarefied commodity, with prices starting at $390. In addition to the ticket cost, Burners need the resources to afford food, drink and shelter for a week-long camping vacation in a potentially harsh desert environment. So, despite the rhetoric about radical inclusion, Burning Man has become, especially in the last few years, an exclusive event.
Bloomberg Business, in a Feb. 5 article, “The Billionaires at Burning Man,” is among the sources which have reported on the rise of wealthy, pampered participants and even class stratification at the festival in recent years.
“That’s one of the reasons we want to bring this art to Reno,” said Schultz. “Burning Man has become a place where a large number of people can never go, and that’s why I’m so passionate about this. I started making this big art because Burning Man was the only place where a homeless guy could make big art. If that doesn’t put a wheel in people’s head, like, wait a minute, a homeless guy making art for a bunch of billionaires? Well, that same guy, who came back to the real world and found one of those millionaires to fund his art, is having a hard time getting the city that he loves to support his art.”
“I don’t think it’s a Burning Man versus everybody else thing, or a Cuddleworks versus Generator thing,” said Conder. “I think what they have over there is a great thing. I think it’s an important piece of the arts community in town, but it’s not the entire equation. I think it’s important to remember that there are other things that are often overlooked because the Burning Man machine is real, and those things deserve the same help or attention from the city and the citizens here.”
Conder first went to Burning Man in 1999. He worked for the organization for several years, and is friends with many of the people involved with Burning Man, which became a nonprofit organization itself last year. Conder also helped start and currently serves on the board of an ongoing bike-sharing project on the playa, Yellow Bike Project.
“I am only an artist today because of Burning Man,” he said. “Burning Man was a pivotal experience in my life, and it was years of my life. Burning Man is no longer a counterculture. It is the mainstream. We have to remember that as the arts community here in Reno. … Although the ideas might still seem radical, Burning Man as an event and as a practice is Nevada big business. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s OK. It brings millions of dollars to our community, and that’s a great thing. … But there are a lot of other things happening and those things shouldn’t be overshadowed by the Burning Man umbrella.”
“I love what this community builds, and I love all of it—all of Reno,” said Schultz. “The Burning Man community is part of that community. So, I love the artwork that’s coming out of Cuddleworks and the Holland Project just the same as I love the artwork that’s coming out of Reno Art Works and The Generator. We have an enormous variety of down-to-earth, real-world people making wonderful, wonderful art.”
“I think art is important for art’s sake,” said Conder. “I don’t really care where people make it or how they make it. What I will take personal offense at is if they’re provided the capacity to create what they want to create, and then that rug is pulled out from under them. I take personal offense at that. And we’ve seen that happen repeatedly in Reno.”
It’s often difficult for local artists to have these kinds of conversations, because Reno is a small town, and the arts community is smaller still. Anything that happens to one local arts organization will have ripples that affect others. That’s why a land deal for one of the most well-funded organizations in town might rub some local arts advocates the wrong way. Additionally, Burning Man tends to be very polarizing. Local artists—and everyone else—tend to either love it or hate it. It’s a difficult subject to express a nuanced opinion about.
“The way that Burning Man works now, if you say anything negative about it, you’re demonized by the people who love it,” said Conder. “I will say this. It’s hard for me to stomach the idea of locally sourcing $200,000 [for “Embrace”] when I know that would fund the Holland Project for two years. That’s a really hard thing. … Holland is specifically for the people of Reno, and The Generator is specifically for some people in Reno and some people from Burning Man.”
The Holland Project, a youth-oriented nonprofit that curates music and art events geared toward Reno teenagers, is just one local arts organization that struggles to get by on a fraction of The Generator’s budget, and without the continuing aid of a millionaire donor.
“There are a lot of great, great organizations that are really underfunded, that struggle every day to offer great programming to our community,” said Conder. “So when I see an organization that’s really well funded, I always think it would be cool if everyone could have a slice of that. … The Reno Philharmonic is going to ask for money. The Hug High Marching Band is going to ask for money. The Nevada Arts Council is going to ask for money. The Holland Project is going to ask for money. And people are going to say, I was going to, but I gave 10 grand to that sculpture that burned down.”
However, as a platform for building large Burning Man projects, the Generator brings national and international attention to the Reno arts community.
“I think it’s important as a community to recognize all art, not just really grandiose, expensive art,” said Conder. “There’s an important distinction between how good something is and how large something is—they’re not one and the same. … I think it’s OK for people to say, ’I don’t like that and this is why.’ It doesn’t mean that you don’t like the artist. It doesn’t mean that you don’t like his organization. It doesn’t mean that you don’t like Burning Man. The world is not that black-and-white.”
“The reason that people have a delineation about Burning Man art is that Burning Man accepts all kinds of art, so for a lot of those people, they stick their nose up at that art project that the housewife did for the first time in the middle of the desert,” said Schultz. “It actually really offends me when the fine arts world put their nose up at the Burning Man arts world, because it’s not good enough.”
Schultz and Conder both acknowledge that an all-inclusive art space might not appeal to artists who value privacy and prefer working in solitude. It can be difficult to parse which of their perspectives is the more populist and accepting. They both seem to have valid points—and that, in addition to questions about land use, financing and property values, is part of what the Reno’s City Council must examine when the Generator Phase 2 revised proposal is presented.
Debates about The Generator are also part of larger conversations about how the city manages land resources. Brekhus said she and Councilmember Paul McKenzie have been advocating a closer examination of all the city-owned properties, and deciding which ones are “family jewels,” cultural resources like the McKinley Arts Center, which are buildings necessary for municipal purposes, like City Hall, and which others can be sold. In some cases, she said, sales should be made to the highest bidders or to adjoiners. In other cases, deals like what The Generator proposes might be more appropriate.
“We need to scope all of that out, and I really do not want to be involved in any more land transaction discussions until we have that more comprehensive analysis and program,” said Brekhus. “As a City Council member, I don’t want to be brokering property parcel by parcel. I want a policy and a program and to have the staff administer it.”
“My take on city-owned buildings and land that they’re looking to unload is that there should be a transparent, organized process for how that occurs,” said Conder. How did [The Generator] find out about that land? Should city-owned land and property be brokered for on the playa? I don’t think so. And I don’t think current City Council members think so either.”
Schultz said he was clued in about the property by former City Councilmember Dave Aiazzi, an avid arts supporter. Conder said he hopes the current City Council is cautious about embracing Burning Man.
“They don’t want Burning Man to be the next gaming,” said Conder. “We’ll put all our eggs in that basket, and then 20 years later, we’re left with fur boots blowing in the street. … I think Burning Man was a great idea. It’s a really beautiful way of thinking, and a really great event that’s now big business. There are good things and bad things about that. The good things are that it brings a lot of money to our community, and that’s awesome. It affords projects like The Generator to happen and that’s great. On the negative side, now let’s ask questions like, if Burning Man were gone tomorrow, what would the cultural landscape and the economic landscape of our city look like? Would we be OK? Would The Generator be OK? Would all those artists who rely on that space and its equipment, which is paid for by Burning Man benefactors, still be able to make art?”