A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture delivered by Paul Baker Prindle, director of Sheppard Contemporary and University Galleries. It was the title that lured me: “Burning Inquiry. Burning Man Art: Turning Reno into an arts destination.”
I must admit I was skeptical. How could someone who’s only lived in Reno for a year and only spent a few hours at Burning Man to go on a special art tour be able to speak with authority on this topic? I’ve lived in Reno eleven years and have been to Burning Man seven consecutive years, spending 12 days out there the last two burns, and I sometimes wonder if I’m qualified to write about Burning Man. But Prindle successfully weaved Burning Man ideology, his academic research on implementing strategies for developing arts economies with his personal experience, having lived in cities that have remade themselves into creative centers. He delivered a thought-provoking talk for seventy-three minutes that many who filled the auditorium are still talking about.
I’ll never forget the first time I went to Burning Man in 2008 and saw the throngs of people and the city lit at night. I kept thinking that people must have had this unquenchable thirst for a creative outlet that they were unable to fulfill in their daily lives. Prindle identified play and creativity not only as important elements at Burning Man, but as essential for building a more creative, engaged arts economy. He said, “Play is good for us, no play is not good for us.” Using Burning Man census data, he informed us that more than 40 percent of those going to the Black Rock Desert to play have a Bachelor’s degree and more than 23 percent reported having a graduate degree. These are the creative types that Prindle argued are exactly what Reno needs to build economic health. “I would argue that the collaborative nature, novel combinations of forms and aesthetics, and creative temporary domiciles built on the playa indicate that many Burners are metacognates with the ability to think divergently, laterally and synthetically,” he said. “My belief is that we can take these examples of how play, creativity, and critical thinking take place in the Black Rock Desert with broader import beyond the Burn and use them to help us make the connections between the sciences, arts, and business that are so important for the health of our region. We must not divide the arts from other parts of our life, but rather work to understand that expressions of creativity are essential to advancing our goals.”
Reno: Where creativity is alive.
An arts destination isn’t a city with “zoo-like” museums where culture is gazed upon on pedestals. But an art destination is a place, like Burning Man, where culture is alive, “where the new and creative is birthed.” Prindle provided some very interesting data that speaks to the importance of engaging arts to attract new people to our community. Americans make 850 million visits to museums every year while only 483 million visits are made to major league sporting events and theme parks. Nationally, the non-profit arts and culture industry create $135.2 billion in economic activity annually and that for every dollar spent by government agencies on the arts, $7 in taxes are generated.
So an arts destination is a city filled with creative types and has an innovative environment that will lure more creative companies like Tesla. Prindle’s talk was very academic, but it stirred the audience. In addition to the many students that appeared to be at the lecture to fulfill a class requirement, many in the audience where local Burners and from the local arts community. Rex “Killbuck” Norman, a local artist who won the mural competition this summer at Circus Circus Reno casino, attended the talk and made comments about it on his Facebook page. He called Reno a “lab dish” that just might be in its golden era, where artists are left alone and without someone branding “Reno Style.” “I guess what I’d like to see Reno become is a more robust version of what it already is — an artist’s city rather than an art destination,” he said. “I’d rather not see Reno as a gallery city — but as a continually changing workshop of ideas and places and spaces where artists want to come and play and create… and yes, invite people to come, see and appreciate, and yeah, buy art too. It’s how we make a living…Yeah, we got it pretty good right now.”
I think I like Prindle’s vision of Reno as a city filled with lots of creative people — not just artists, but a culture of innovative, playful, critical thinkers. What he didn’t elaborate on are the next steps. I think this discussion definitely needs to continue.