Founder of Burning Man, Artist and Activist Larry Harvey, Dies Aged 70

Harvey, who founded the annual counterculture gathering in the Nevada desert, suffered a stroke earlier in the month

FoldHaus, Shrumen Lumen, 2016. Courtesy: Smithsonian; photograph: Rene Smith

FoldHaus, Shrumen Lumen, 2016. Courtesy: Smithsonian; photograph: Rene Smith

FoldHaus, Shrumen Lumen, 2016. Courtesy: Smithsonian; photograph: Rene Smith

The cofounder of the Burning Man festival, Larry Harvey, has died following a massive stroke on 4 April. He was aged 70. The festival confirmed the news: ‘Larry was never one for labels. He didn’t fit a mold; he broke it with the way he lived his life,’ Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell said in a statement. ‘He was always a passionate advocate for our culture and principles that emanate from the Burning Man experience.’

Harvey grew up on a Portland farm in Oregon. He started Burning Man in 1986 with Jerry James after moving to San Francisco in the 1970s and working as everything from a bike messenger, a taxi driver, a cook and eventually a landscape gardener. The event began as a summer solstice ritual on Baker Beach, San Francisco, with the night culminating in the burning of an effigy. With the festival growing each year, and pressure from the authorities, the location was changed in 1990 to northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

With tickets ranging from USD$425 to USD$1,200, the arts festival now attracts around 70,000 people who come together to create a temporary settlement, ‘Black Rock City’, filled with sculptures and interactive artworks, over one week each year. Its horseshoe-grid shape was designed by Harvey and the late architect Rod Garrett. The giant effigy burning on the penultimate day remains. 

In recent years, the festival has earned a reputation as a networking event for US technology elites, even while retaining its anti-consumerist ethos: logos on clothing is banned and everything is free expect for coffee and ice. ‘Burning Man is Silicon Valley’, Elon Musk once said. Harvey converted the limited liability corporation responsible for holding Burning Man into a nonprofit in 2013, with 70 employees and a USD$30 million budget. Harvey was the festival’s ‘chief philosophic officer’ as well as president of the art nonprofit Black Rock Arts Foundation, supporting public art in communities outside of the festival.

In March, the Smithsonian opened the exhibition ‘No Spectators’ at the Renwick Gallery, Washington, acknowledging the festival’s place within American art history. The exhibition documents artworks produced in the desert through installations and photographs. This recognition of Burning Man as a major art movement, ‘after decades of outsider status, gave him a great sense of satisfaction’, Harvey’s friend and the festival’s education director Stuart Mangrum said. ‘No Spectators’ runs until 21 January 2019.

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