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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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

13 replies on “Galapagos Art Space Founder Attempts to Flip Detroit Building for $6.25 Million”

  1. Jillian, this guy came to Grand Rapids during ArtPrize this past year and spoke on a panel about his Detroit plans. As soon as a local journalist in the audience asked a question about artist-participation in gentrification & lack of concern for the community we step into, the panel was quick closed up and shut down. That journalist and I both wrote about it afterwards. A lot of people rolled their eyes at us. And here we have the evidence. Thank you for writing this!

    1. It’s not the artists but the people who come after- after the landlords sell for a a lot of money. Artists also get moved and displaced.

      1. NOPE. Artists do not get to pretend that we don’t engage in gentrification ourselves when we choose to move into areas we have no genuine connection to and actively displace “undesirables”. Did you even READ this article???

        1. Right. Keep Detroit just the way it is. I’ve driven through the worst parts of Detroit – thanks GPS. Gentrification in Detroit? There are literally THOUSANDS of houses that are abandonded. The place is reverting to nature.
          You’re just plain silly.

        2. Because we’re looking for a cheap place to went? So we only should move to places in which we have a connection too? That makes no sense. Artists don’t displace “undesirables” the landlords do. They’ll sell to the developers that want in and of course city hall wants a piece. But those are harder targets to go after, so lets ridicule and blame artists. And yes, I did read the article. And as an artist I experienced displacement because all of those people wanted to cash in on the arts. Providence, in the 90’s-2000 had a booming art scene and lots of abandon industrial properties. An artist collective was formed and thrived for a long time-in an abandon building. It was a jewel in the city, until they (the city) decided they needed to put a grocery store there. It became a small little strip mall, which I believed went under. So look beyond the artists to who actually is controlling the damn strings.

  2. From Galapagos Art Space:

    Last year our toddler son was diagnosed with leukemia.
    Taking care of him and making sure he gets better has (of course) become our
    most important priority. Over the last year we learned that we had to decide
    between Corktown and Highland Park as we simply couldn’t manage and improve
    both sites and our sons care at the same time. We decided to focus on Highland
    Park and had the Corktown building appraised three times. If I owned a house –
    we rent – like anyone else, I wouldn’t want to sell it for less than the
    appraisal. Being able to move the equity to Highland Park is critical to our
    success; though we believe in Highland Park very much and have staked our
    future there, it’s been difficult to attract funding and capital to the city.
    The neighborhoods haven’t shared fairly in the revitalization of Detroit; we’re
    taking the increase in Corktown and applying it in the neighborhoods and we
    think that’s an important move forward for the city’s growth and for Highland
    Park. It also helps balance our limited bandwidth while we take care of our
    son.

    Robert Elmes
    Executive Director, Galapagos Art Space

    1. Demand a retraction. This is straight up libel and defamation. And I wish to add, I am sorry to hear about your son, and have said a prayer that he be entirely cured. I also want to say I enjoyed many shows at Galapagos in Brooklyn over the years, and it is clear to me what your true intent is.

  3. And this is bad why? High risk brings high reward. I celebrate those that are willing to put their MONEY where their mouth is and move the needle UPWARD. May this transaction be a catalyst for more economic value creation in bankrupt Detroit. Depressing how cynical and mean-spirited this article is. Are you cheerleading for abject poverty and chaos in Detroit? As an arts leader, who successfully turnaround a struggling museum, I encountered many art world insiders who used their megaphone to advocate for status quo. I ignored them, doubled the operating budget, hired 3 more people, and raised attendance by 60% in 18 months. My advice to Galapagos is to ignore the haters and focus on the doers. Artists and art organizations that don’t embrace business smarts will continue to be slaves to wealthy donors and conservative foundations.

    1. They aren’t cheerleading for abject poverty but for the poor themselves. Those are the people who will be harmed by this and since you don’t seem to understand this the poor live constantly with high risk with no high reward.

      Your art organization isn’t more important than the people of Detroit who AREN’T slumming rich white people looking to suck any remaining blood out of Detroit and its people.

      1. You will have to explain to me how rising property prices, an influx of business owners and creative energy hurts the poor. The best way I know to help financial struggling folk is to generate jobs that provide a living wage and offer personal satisfaction. You seem to prefer Detroit stay as it is. Some of us are not so cruel.

      2. White people sucked “any remaining blood out of Detroit decades ago.” Artists are bringing life to Detroit where nobody else would.

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