Galapagos Art Space Founder Attempts to Flip Detroit Building for $6.25 Million

The building on 18th Street in Detroit that Robert Elmes is selling for $6.25 million. (photo by CoStar Group Inc, via crainsdetroit.com)
The building on 18th Street in Detroit that Robert Elmes is selling for $6.25 million. (photo by CoStar Group Inc, via crainsdetroit.com)

Just over a year ago, Robert Elmes made waves when he announced that the beloved Brooklyn cultural center he’d founded 20 years prior, Galapagos Art Space, would be closing up shop in New York and moving to Detroit. “Simply put, New York City has become too expensive to continue incubating young artists,” he wrote at the time. “The white-hot real estate market burning through affordable cultural habit is no longer a crisis, it’s a conclusion.”

How ironic that Elmes now seems perfectly fine with bolstering that crisis-causing “white-hot real estate market,” by selling one of the nine buildings he originally bought in Detroit — for $6.25 million.

The 138,000-square-foot structure is located at 1800 18th Street, near the neighborhood of Corktown. According to Crain’s, Elmes bought it in December 2013 for $500,000. He’s now looking for someone to pay 12.5 times that price, or, as Crain’s puts it, “The purchase price was about $3.62 per square foot, while the asking price is about $45.29 per square foot.” This in a city where houses regularly appear on the market for less than $1,000.

When Elmes announced Galapagos’s move to Detroit, in December 2014, many were wary of what they saw as, essentially, a gentrification plan disguised as an arts venture. “Bottom line: real estate is at the center of this move, not artists,” Tara Sheena wrote for Hyperallergic at the time, pointing out that Elmes seemed less interested in the city he was moving to, and the artists and inhabitants already there, than in finding a cheap alternative to Brooklyn and “snatch[ing] up real estate while he can.”

But Elmes talked big, announcing “A New Funding Model for the Arts” on the Galapagos website and claiming an attempt “to reposition and stabilize the cultural business model by linking its success to the increased real estate values that the presence of artists and cultural organizations catalyzes over and over again.” How exactly he planned to do this wasn’t clear, but he reassuringly claimed to be concerned with “ensuring that the artists benefit from the value they create by their presence and activity, and that they aren’t simply priced out of the real estate because of their own efforts.” With this attempted $6.25 million sale, Elmes has apparently dropped all pretense of caring about the city: his “new” funding system is not a model to be replicated. It is solely an endeavor to benefit Galapagos, and the only artists he cares about are the ones who have yet to arrive in Detroit.

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