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Straight From The Playa To The Public

With its proximity to the Black Rock Desert, Reno is a conduit for creative expression among artists who make their annual trek to the Burning Man festival. Now, a group of art lovers is trying to bring more of that Burner art back to the city. Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey has the story.

Artist Gary Gunderson attended his fourth Burning Man this year. He built an 18-foot metal sculpture made from recycled bicycle parts that can be played like a musical instrument.

The Seattle-based artist says most people assume that Burner art is meant to be engulfed in flames by the end of the festival, but there's actually a lot of smaller sculptures that remain unseen.

"There is an amazing amount of art generated for Burning Man that is sitting in warehouses," says Gunderson.

Personally, he'd like to have his pieces enjoyed by the public for as long as possible.

"There's something special about the whole immolation of something — on the other hand, after all that work is put into it, there are plenty of people who would love to see these things," he says.

Gunderson isn’t alone with this wish. The nonprofit Sierra Arts Foundation, working with the city’s cultural affairs department and other art boosters, is holding the first ever Gateway Gala this weekend. The goal is to raise funds to purchase playa art for the city’s permanent collection.

Gunderson’s piece, called Pentamonium, would be the first purchase by the city using funds from the event.

"Reno is particularly well-situated because of the traffic that goes through to Burning Man and the number of the artists have been encouraged in that area to do something large.”

Although not limited to one style, Burning Man sculptures tend to be on a larger scale, made of wood and metal and highly interactive. 

Reno has a $5 million public arts collection that includes 185 exterior pieces, but just six of those are from Burning Man.

"Public art gives so much more than people realize…”

That's Christine Fey, resource development and cultural affairs manager for the city.

“Communities that have it are far more sophisticated, they are more layered culturally and arguably one of the most important things is that it enhances the economy,” she says. “And it brings creative people to your city to live, because creative people want to be around creative things.”

Since about 2008, Fey has steadily increased the number of Burning Man art pieces displayed either temporarily or permanently around Reno. She regularly attends with members of the arts commission to scout for pieces and works with people like Crimson Rose, co-founder of Burning Man.

"Not everyone wants to go to Burning Man, not everyone will attend,” says Rose. “And for those who would not venture to the Black Rock Desert, this is really a perfect way for them to enjoy, to discuss, whether they like something, whether they don't like something. The fact that people will talk about it is a really good thing."

Rose helps bolster her organization's reach into cities around the world through public art collaborations like the upcoming Gateway Project.

"To me culture is a living, breathing organism, and unless we continue to stoke it and stir it up, it will stagnate and it will die,” says Rose. “And I think this is one way of us supporting Reno in their creative endeavor."

Christine Fey with the city says for Reno to be seen as a thriving arts community, public art is a necessity.

"It adds to a sense of identity, it adds to a sense of well-being and pride in your community, it can give you notoriety," she says.

Fey says they've just acquired Burning Man’s metal "Believe" sculpture displayed temporarily last spring, which will find a permanent home at the city's plaza once the Virginia Street Bridge is complete. 

Julia Ritchey is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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