Opinion

Will Galapagos’s Move to Detroit Be a Blessing or a Curse?

One of the buildings at the future site of Galapagos Detroit (all images courtesy Galapagos)
One of the buildings at the future site of Galapagos Detroit (all images courtesy Galapagos)

I grew up in the Metro Detroit area as a dancer and performer who, inevitably it seems, ended up in Brooklyn a few days after graduating college. Is it time to turn around?

In the three years I’ve lived in this fair borough, I’ve seen the deaths and dissolutions of many artist-run spaces, overrun by rapidly increasing rent; an ever-dissolving DIY scene, overrun mostly by VICE; and the slow, steady disappearance of small businesses, overrun by corporations. All of this points to an objectification of Brooklyn, no longer a city or signifier of urban audacity but a brand and casualty of capitalistic manipulation — a Brooklyn that’s no longer as open and nourishing to the artist population that gave it its cultural cache in the first place.

Now, I am told, Detroit is poised to become a habitable and reliable locale for artists to live, work, and mold into a cultural stronghold. As someone who has called both places home, I’m not as quick to accept Detroit as the storied incubator for creatives it’s being made out to be. But with the recent news that Galapagos Art Space will relocate from Dumbo to Detroit next year, a consensus seems to have been reached: Our Brooklyn is not the Brooklyn we meant to make. It may be time to head back to the Motor City.

Robert Elmes, Galapagos’s founder and executive director, notes his shift in thinking on Galapagos Detroit’s website: “This project seeks to reposition and stabilize the cultural business model by linking its success to the increased real estate value that the presence of artists and cultural organizations catalyzes again and again.” Elmes goes on to point out that we artists are already a large part of the real estate business but fail to be rewarded for it.

While we’re on the subject, let’s point out another thing artists fail to be rewarded for: being artists.

According to a recent, widely circulated study by BFAMFAPHD, an artist-run advocacy group, only 10% of artists living in New York City are able to make a living off of their art. That “living”? $25,000 a year. Not much of a reward, if you ask me. (There’s another type of currency that artists seem to operate on, called psychic income, but the study didn’t account for that.)

This points to a larger truth: whether a venue is thriving or struggling, those who benefit least are always the artists. No matter their medium, artists are the lifeblood of the institutions, theaters, stages, museums, galleries, basements, hallways, and alleyways of the places where their art is experienced; yet it’s often the case, including at many venues in Brooklyn, that artists subsidize their own efforts for the benefit of the spaces that house them. Elmes attempts to acknowledge the necessity of artists on the Galapagos Detroit website, where he explains his three-ingredient recipe for a “well functioning creative ecosystem”: time, space, and people. He will soon have the space and assumes the time will follow, but has, like many institutions, left the people behind. Any plans to direct revenue to artists or include local artists in the consultation and building of his Detroit site appear to be nonexistent. His claim that Detroit is currently “gaining its critical third component – artists – at an astonishing rate” betrays a deep ignorance of the current, existing city. In Elmes’s for-profit funding model, money talks, and it will always override the creative work needed to actually make Galapagos (or any space) artistically relevant, no matter where in America it is.

One of the buildings at the future site of Galapagos Detroit
One of the buildings at the future site of Galapagos Detroit

Bottom line: real estate is at the center of this move, not artists. Elmes’s zeal to claim property in an openly affordable Detroit — including a 125,000-square-foot former paper and packaging warehouse in Corktown, the city’s oldest neighborhood — seems less like the product of an interest in serving creators and more like a business plan to snatch up real estate while he can.

Galapagos Detroit seems to be taking its cues from Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come.

And come they will. Probably not the longtime citizens of Detroit, but there are wealthy suburban crowds that flank the city on all sides. Many treat Detroit as a onetime destination for a sporting event or performance every few months. When it’s over, they get in their cars and travel back on the labyrinthian highways — an echo of Detroit’s once powerful place at the center of the auto industry — back to their homes, a different life, a different zip code. They will come, but who is coming and for what? The creative community of Detroit is as disjointed as the place it calls home. It is exciting and generative, yes, but also hindered so much by a city that lacks any stake in cultural identity. That, as well as most of Detroit, can and will be rebuilt. It will take time.

Can Galapagos help with this? Elmes and co. address the question of “why Detroit?” on their site, and their reasoning has nothing to do with Detroit itself. Instead, they rehash old news: rising real estate prices and cost of living hinder the ability of artists to work in New York City. If the argument is predicated simply on the downfall of New York, any city could be the “next” Brooklyn. Why make roots in one where many citizens do not have access to running water; where public transportation and infrastructure are highly lacking and neglected; where a municipal bankruptcy to the tune of $20 billion is barely cold? Some might argue that the city needs solid leadership and peace of mind, not an arts space that may eventually drive out longtime residents. Elmes runs the risk of becoming the very agent of gentrification and rising rents that are causing him to leave Brooklyn. Many point out his foresight in establishing Galapagos in the mid-’90s in Williamsburg and credit the space for the influx of artists to the neighborhood at the time; 20 years later, Williamsburg boasts million-dollar apartments and more artisanal ice cream than you know what to do with. (His venture in Dumbo didn’t follow the same path, although it was supposed to create “a new cultural destination,” accompanied by a “buzz and spike in property values.”) Who knows? Maybe Elmes’s prophetic visions will work similarly in Detroit.

Early plans for the space note the promise of the first ever Detroit Biennial in 2016, a showcase of local talent to be displayed in Galapagos’s new network of buildings. It sounds promising but too buzzy; my skepticism remains. Galapagos does not seem as concerned with establishing their stake in the local artist community as they are in being able to say, “We got here first.”

I want Detroit to succeed. I want Galapagos to succeed. But these things are not of the same order: a city healing from decades of neglect and a violent bankruptcy, one arts space among many others rethinking life in BrooklynTM. Both need time and resources; both need to find ways to sustain themselves. Ultimately, though, Galapagos will need Detroit more than Detroit needs Galapagos. And as the site develops, I hope Elmes and crew take to heart the needs of a city they are so quick and eager to buy up.

Time will tell. For now, I remain in Brooklyn.

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