This week feels like the perfect opportunity to recap some major things that happened at the Hermitage in 2017, for one reason in particular– this weekend is the anticipated opening of our friends at the Renwick’s No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man exhibit in Washington, D.C. (March 30, 2018-January 21, 2019). For those of you who visited recently or follow the Hermitage’s social media, you may recall that we hosted an out of the ordinary exhibit last summer called, The Art of Burning Man. And guys, it was EPIC.
The exhibit certainly left its impact on the community here, well after the lingering days of the Virginia summer. Whenever I meet someone new and tell them where I work, their first reaction is, “Oh! I wish I had/I attended that Burning Man opening/closing party!” It was and continues to be the talk of the town and we all still feel so proud to have been part of bringing that special magic of Burning Man to Norfolk, in a setting like the Hermitage. And we’re excited that even afterwards, some of artists we befriended will be featured at the Renwick’s own exhibit this year.
If you would love a hard-copy record of the exhibit with stunning professional photos, we do still have the exhibit catalog available from our museum gift shop! They are $25 + tax and museum members get a 10% discount!
And now, a brief write-up about the exhibit by colleague Carrie Spencer:
Exhibit photos captured by Yuzhu Zheng
What I learned about the art of Burning Man:
At first glance, the Hermitage Museum & Gardens, a small Arts and Crafts-style estate located in Norfolk, Virginia, is an unlikely venue to host artwork once displayed at Burning Man; however, ‘out-of the-ordinary’ ideas are what drive Hermitage programming and exhibitions. We are known for the unusual and for offering unique arts and cultural experiences in the region, making Burning Man a perfect fit. As we wrap up The Art of Burning Man exhibition at the Hermitage Museum & Gardens I begin to reflect on our accomplishments and all that we have learned. We were optimistic about how the show would be received but have been blown away by the incredible response and are thrilled with how the exhibition and its programming evolved. Being a small and nimble museum allowed us the necessary flexibility in curating a community driven, collaborative exhibition.
Our Executive Director, along with staff, began developing the exhibition idea in early 2016. During this process, I was fortunate enough to attend Burning Man and a regional Burning Man event which helped me gain a much better understanding of the culture and community of Burning Man; something I could never have gained simply by researching the artists and artwork. Through this invaluable experience that I brought back to the museum we realized that the art from Burning Man cannot be separate from the culture of Burning Man. It became important to us to incorporate aspects of the culture and the event in our nearly 5-month long exhibition.
Installing the large-scale artworks on our 12 acres of waterfront gardens and grounds was the easy part, relatively speaking. How we could incorporate the culture of Burning Man and convey that to the public was the greater challenge. Having the artwork simply sit on our property for 4.5 months would not truly embody Burning Man. We needed more. We asked ourselves “How can we convey Burning Man to our visitors? How can we integrate our community with the Burning Man community? How can we educate the public about this artwork, the artists, and about Burning Man?”
There were three things that were essential in our attempt to answer these questions.
- Theme Camps: A big takeaway from my experience attending Burning Man were the community contributions that occur in the form of theme camps; whether the camp offers hair washing, omelets for breakfast, workshops, or art-making activities these camps each contribute to providing meaningful experiences to the community as their gift. I found, in my own experience, theme camps to be just as essential as the sculptures at Burning Man. Visiting various camps provided me opportunities to connect with others, collaborate, learn new things, and at times simply have fun. To integrate this aspect into the exhibition programming we invited community members, organizations, and Burners to offer contributions during our evening exhibition hours.
We hosted DJs, artist demonstrations, art-making activities, yoga lessons, improv comedy performers, dancers, and much more. All of these individuals and organizations donated their time and talents to our exhibition as a gift to the community, as a way of being a part of something much larger than themselves, and as a means of connecting with others. It allowed the community to become involved with the exhibition, take ownership of it, and share their gift with the public.
- Volunteerism: We learned early on that volunteerism is heavily encouraged within the Burning
Man community. This aspect was easy for us, as the Hermitage is accustomed to working with volunteers on a regular basis. We recruited volunteers to help with the installation and deinstallation of the artwork, both inside the museum and outside on the grounds. We asked volunteers to serve as docents to help educate the public about the artwork, the artists, and about Burning Man. We created a volunteer group that we referred to as Burning Man Ambassadors and who helped us spread the word throughout the region about this experience coming to Norfolk.
- The Principles: Incorporating the principles was an obvious aspect of Burning Man culture for us to include in our attempt to embody the ethos of Burning Man. Participation, Communal Effort, Self-Expression, and Inclusion were all emphasized in our programming efforts and aligned well with Hermitage practices.
Incorporating these important components into our exhibition and programming helped us to integrate our community with the Burning Man community. It allowed us to educate the public about the artwork, the artists, and about Burning Man more than museum labels or brochures could. And it enabled us to create interactive, participatory and shared experiences that created a lasting impression on our visitors. In this regard, we were successful. Through this we were able to establish community partnerships, gain community input, and build lasting relationships.
Throughout this experience I learned that Burning Man art is not limited to the art objects. Burning Man moves beyond the idea that there is an artist who creates art and an observer who enjoys it. This is different from what usually occurs in the traditional museum setting. At Burning Man, the participants (referred to as visitors in the museum world) do not just admire the art, they become a part of it. The artworks are not just objects, they engage participants and demand interaction; they create specific environments and places to visit and pay homage to. Our visitors became participants. They attended our evening programs by gifting contributions to the community and the exhibition. They helped build the artwork alongside the artists during the installation and helped in breaking down the artwork. They continued to come back week after week to care for the artwork. They volunteered as educators and they interacted with the artwork as each artist intended.
At Burning Man and at the Art of Burning Man exhibition, the art objects and the participants play a role in a much larger art experience; an interactive performance between the artists who dedicate a great deal of effort creating the work, the objects that are interactive and engaging, and the participants. This performance between the artist, the object, and the participant is the real work of art, in progress, during the annual event, but also extends beyond the event creating a performance piece in which every aspect of Burning Man helps to shape the art. Burning Man art happens every day, all year long and it happened in Norfolk this summer.
…..And yes, of course we had a burn at the closing party! Check it out