The Galapagos Art Space in Detroit

Thursday, Dec 11th

After getting some press in Deadline Detroit, Robert Elmes, the Director of the Galapagos Art Space, reached out. I'll follow up with our conversation in another post, but I'm happy to be talking! True to my word, I definitely want to apologize for the incendiary language and claims I lobbied their way; it was definitely not a productive use of words and emotion. In addition to my f-bombs, it also seems they have been misrepresented in other reporting, too. According to Robert, some of the "multimillion" dollar renovation numbers that have been thrown around (*cough* Crains *cough*) just aren't correct. No word yet on what the final cost will be, but myself and the local media outlets have definitely overblown the scale.

Also, in efforts to maintain openess and blackmail material for any of my critics (and because Deadline has already published my f-bombs), I'll keep the original content of the blog here.

As many in the Detroit art world know, there's a big new player coming into town. Brooklyn's big performace art space, Galapagos, is moving its operation to Detroit (well Highland Park, to be exact, but they don't really know that) [1]. Like the constant critic I am, let's break down their move and talk about what it means for the Detroit art scene.

It's too expensive to work in Brookyln

Yes, it's no big news that New York's real estate market is expensive and it's pushing out people left and right. Many have already made the pilgrimage to Detroit, the new mecca of the creative class. And after 20 years of work in Brooklyn, Galapagos is following their fellow Brooklyn artists to make it on the untouched and fertile creative soil of Detroit. In an ironic twist, to escape the effects of gentrification caused by artists moving to Brooklyn, they've bought up 6 buildings in Highland Park and Detroit in order to create a bit of gentrification themselves. I wonder what is going to happen in 20 years when they're feeling the pinch of rising Detroit real estate prices? Don't worry; this time they'll control the land and the housing and studio developments in their own little Williamsburg.

It's pretty offensive to me how they talk about their building purchases, too. "[Galapagos] buys 600,000 sq ft for the price of a small apartment in new york city." Yes, we know that Detroit has low property values; that's about as big of news as New York's rising prices. But in a city where people are having trouble paying their taxes, water bills, and mortgages, bragging about what a great deal you got doesn't really inspire a lot of desire to connect with your new neighbors. Don't let the cover of an artistic background fool you, this is just as troubling to me as Chinese real estate investment snatching up neighborhoods at the county tax auction. If land is the basis of freedom as Malcom X suggests, it's disconcerting to know that residents around Detroit are loosing more and more of their freedom to landlords. When the Detroit art scene is having a hard enough time trying to be acknowledged on a national scale, having a big player airlift in, and control the narrative with property and big pockets, it is sure to push existing Detroit artists further to the sidelines of the converation. The only thing that could make this worse is if there was an arts center in Highland park trying to gain some attention and funding. Oh wait.

Galapagos says that "the arts are already in the real estate business - they just aren’t being rewarded for it." And they're exactly right: plenty of great Detroit creatives have built a very appealing brand that Galapagos is moving in to capitalize on. The rest of the great venues and art organizations around the city will just have to live in its big, New York-designed shadow. (I mean seriously? At least other out of town businesses would have hired local architects [3].)

"You can’t paint at night in your kitchen and hope to be a good artist. It doesn’t work that way."

This choice quote from the "Why?" section of their website was what inspired me to write this post in the first place. Here's my response:

Fuck you.

Seriously, go fuck yourselves. If you can give me a good reason to believe that you remember what it's like to be an artist and not just a wealthy venue owner, I'll apologize, but until then, you can piss off. I know plenty of incredibly talented artists here in Detroit who produce beautiful work in basements, on home depot work canvas, and kitchen tables. It has nothing to do with where you're making art or with what materials, or if you have a 10,000 square foot lake[3], but it has everything to do with the skill, talent, and drive you put into your work. You've completely missed one of the driving and defining elements of the Detroit art scene's "brand" that you're capitalizing on: you don't have to have a lot to make the art that matters. I guarantee that every great artist has spent much of their formulative years painting in spaces that aren't the industrial-style artist lofts that you will undoubtably be renting out soon. But I guess that's the narrative you want to send? That Detroit is in desperate need of your artistic and real estate genius.

But that's the problem isn't it? Doesn't Detroit already have a vibrant creative community? I'd venture to say that Detroit's art scene has been around since the beginning of the 20th century at a minimum, if not well before. We've left lasting impressions on music with greats in Jazz, Rock, Soul, Funk, and Techno. We've had architects who built the Art Deco and Modern buildings we see around the world. We've produced creators in Artistic and Design movements from the Arts & Crafts movement to pioneers in public installation art. We already have a "well functioning creative ecosystem." Just get off your high horse and you might see it.

Detroit doesn't need you; you need Detroit.

Like most new people moving to this city, I suffered from this delusion early on when I arrived in the city. I felt that I had some talent and ideas that were in some way unique and important to "help" Detroit. What an egotistical, selfish and ignorant view. I quickly was faced with the reality that Galapagos will hopefully soon realize: Detroit doesn't need saving. It doesn't need the sexy, young, white, affluent people to "rebuild" Detroit. Here, I found plenty of existing neighborhood organizations, non-profits, and artists who knew more about this city than I ever could. These were the organizations that Detroit needs, the ones that have long-term roots to the residents and areas that they operate within. We need all residents, both new and old, to do the simple things: pay your taxes, mow your lawn, and look out for your neighbors. It's not sexy, and it's a hard sell given the city serivces and the employment opportunities that exist here, but I know that's what will makes us a great city.

There's a reason why the "No Fly Zone" has become such a controversial term here in the city. And it's this very reason; there are plenty of great local creatives that don't get the credit or attention they deserve for the great work that they do, while out-of-town artists and venues get to dictate the narrative of "rebirth" of Detroit. It's just not intellectually honest. At the end of the day, Galapagos is here to make a buck off of their lofts, studio, and venue that they will operate. And much in the same way as Shinola, they're co-opting Detroit as a brand although they don't have any license or authority to do so.

So, Galapagos I ask you this:

You say you're building this to give artists an affordable place to grow off of the hustle that Detroit provides. Do you expect that "grit" to still exist when you've built it out as a multi-million dollar facility?

You say you're moving from Brooklyn to escape the rising tide of gentrification. Explain to me how you wont be accelerating it here. And don't pretend you're some victim in all of this. You stand to a profit off of this in the same manner as the real estate investors have off of you in New York.

And finally, can you learn the difference between Highland Park and Detroit? I know Highland Park doesn't sound as sexy, but there's no reason that you can't show some love their way, given that most of your development will be there.


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