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Meet the entrepreneur who is bringing Burning Man art to Las Vegas

If 2020 were going as planned, right now Joshua Levine would be lining up the interesting artworks he wanted to see, packing up nine days of food and clothing and preparing to drive to Black Rock City for what he calls his largest trade show of the year.

Instead, he is working out of his office — a small space opposite the Las Vegas Strip filled with mobile dance clubs, seven 10-foot-tall orange astronauts and something called Fire Skee Ball — and finding new homes in Las Vegas for the wild, whimsical and far-flung art from Burning Man.

Today, Las Vegas is home to more interactive and oversized public artworks than ever. And Levine’s company, Fired Up Management, is working directly with artists to attract more of it to Southern Nevada and around the world.

Big art

Levine founded Fired Up seven years ago after he discovered a gap in the market between artists who design and fabricate 26-foot-tall fire-breathing octopuses, technicolor entry arbors and roving Victorian houses and the art collectors and curators who may be interested in buying or leasing them.

This would have been the 21st year that the former actor made a yearly pilgrimage to the Burning Man art and community event in Northern Nevada.

For one week, he lives with the camp that built the flaming El Pulpo Mechanico octopus.

About eight years ago, he was contacted by Taco Bell about renting the sculpture for a two-day commercial shoot.

“I told them their timing was bad, Burning Man was next week and it was already packed up and loaded,” Levine says. “Later I saw the commercial. It was on a Burning Man-esque background. And in the back corner was a knock-off flaming menorah.”

Levine, who was working as a manager for actors in Los Angeles, decided that someone needed to step up and manage experimental artists to ensure their art got attention and, perhaps more importantly, that the artists get paid.

He moved to Las Vegas last year, after his work curating art for the yet-to-open Area15 had him flying in nearly every weekend.

At that time, art from Burning Man had started popping up in Las Vegas — the “Love Letters” sculpture at The Venetian and the fire-breathing praying mantis in front of Downtown Container Park came from the Northern Nevada event.

In addition to the eight art pieces he helped to acquire for the Area15’s Art Island, he has installed a handful of items downtown, including a blinking firework sculpture, an oversized flamingo lawn ornament, a splayed out robot and the three-story Neverwas Haul mobile art vehicle built to resemble a Victorian house on wheels.

Over the past seven years, Levine has let loose an autonomous dragon-shaped vehicle in downtown Las Vegas, held a public art car festival and converted a small parking lot on Fremont Street into an art park in tandem with Lyft. For the past five years, Levine has curated art for Life is Beautiful and in 2018, he commissioned the Skee Ball game that launches flames out of the top when players score.

“This art is genre exclusive. If you don’t go to this gathering, go to the middle of the desert, you’ll never see it,” Levine says. “Some people never see the Eiffel Tower. These are actual pieces you can see and experience and they should be.”

The artists

Davis McCarty was on the verge of retiring from 10 years of making art when he decided to do one last project. He envisioned a fantastical port that human space travelers may discover on an alien planet.

McCarty launched a Kickstarter, received a 2016 art honorarium from Burning Man and threw in his personal savings to fund the build of “Pulse Portal.”

After Burning Man, the 35-year-old artist from Chicago brought the art piece to another desert festival and met Levine, who recently installed it at Area15’s Art Island.

“We’re on the cusp of a visionary movement, a bohemian art moment and Joshua is one of the people at the forefront with vision and courage,” McCarty says. “Immersive art is taking the world by storm. We’re finding out as a society that we value experiences rather than just possessions.”

Michael Benisty’s first visit to Burning Man in 2015 was a transformative one.

“It’s one of the sickest places on Earth, a gathering of the best that humanity has to offer,” says the 43-year-old Belgian artist. “In that moment and space, I realized what I was supposed to do and share as an artist.”

Benisty created “In Every Lifetime I Will Find You,” a 25-foot-tall mirrored sculpture of two figures hugging or dancing or holding each other. Benisty says it is up to the viewer.

Levine commissioned him to build a one-third replica for Art Island.

As images of Burning Man have permeated the more mainstream art world, Benisty has found the most gratifying reward for his work is the feedback he receives, some from artists who create paintings or jewelry with his two silver figures as the muses.

“I wish the world would return to normal so there is more opportunity for new projects,” he says. “Hopefully we can keep doing what we love and get paid for it to feed our families and invest and grow as artists.”

Since 2012, Matt Elson has been breaking down the idea of the self by creating boxes with mirrored surfaces that combine the faces of two people who look inside.

When he agreed to build a custom “Infinity Ship” for Area15, he was given five years worth of lease money upfront.

“It’s so rare and energizing when someone gives you that much trust,” Elson says. “Here you go. Here’s what you asked for. Go do that thing.”

Elson says that having a manager invested in the caliber of his work makes a difference when cooperating with clients.

“Joshua helped kick it up to the next level,” Elson says. “I started doing less shows for free. He knew about available events and paying gigs.”

Like Burning Man, several art installations Levine had planned for 2020 have been postponed and cancelled.

He does have a couple of projects up his sleeve for Las Vegas, such as potential homes for a massive woman rising out of an eggshell, a towering assemblage of shopping carts, another for those seven astronauts and an interactive light piece by the same art collective.

“This big, large-scale art brings people into the community, and how do you bring tourists back?” Levine says. “These big festivals out there are all showing that big art is something that people want and the community wants.”

Contact Janna Karel at jkarel@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jannainprogress on Twitter.

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