Galapagos: The inevitable angry hometown reaction begins

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Let's be honest: When the Brooklyn-based art space Galapagos announced it was moving to our stomping grounds, it wasn't an art story. What was it then? It was a real estate story. It sent ripples through a community of investors and speculators that increasingly gaze upon Detroit's disinvested spaces with dollar signs in their eyes. A the Detroit News reported, when Robert Elmes came to town to visit, executives showed him around. It would be nice to think it was an art story, but that would require Galapagos to place a high value on Detroit's art community and for that community to hold the moneyed East Coast art world in high esteem.

As it stands, the Galapagos move is only seen as a good deal between real estate investors, and there's some anger bubbling to the surface, today in the form of a literate blog post at Box Blog. The post is called Galapagos Goes Detroit, and it's an entertaining read. Quotes that particularly offended the author include: "You can’t paint at night in your kitchen and hope to be a good artist. It doesn’t work that way," and the way the Galapagos folks bragged about buying 600,000 square feet "for the price of a small apartment in New York City." 

It's a shame, though, because we think the Galapagos people are doing what a lot of out-of-towners do: Bring Eastern preconceptions to bear in well-meaning but nonetheless offensive statements. And what makes it all the worse is that Galapagos and Detroit probably aren't all that far apart.

When Galapagos first opened in Brooklyn about 20 years ago, we remember a very rough art space that had some bizarre exhibits. They screened a film on the roof of their ramshackle Williamsburg building — and rushed out to urge the audience to move away from the center, as they were unsure how many people the roof could support! It was, in many ways, very rough and reminiscent of a Detroit art event.

Of course, then the neighborhood blew up, rents rose, and Galapagos had to move on to the next rough art neighborhood. But before that happened, Galapagos went from rough art space to fancy place to be seen drinking a cocktail, with rills of water carved into the concrete floor, lined with candles like some post-armageddon garden party. Eventually it became a place lit up like Las Vegas, a far cry from its ramshackle roots. This may be the source of a lot of the friction: Galapagos comes to Detroit feeling like savvy underdogs who aren't going to get burned again by high rents; Detroiters see a self-important organization coming to town to host its own "Detroit biennials" and sees arrogance — and laughs at the idea that people with tens of millions of dollars consider themselves underdogs at all.

But, again, Galapagos was there once, and like a lot of people buying their bargain homes in Detroit know, owning a house is a bulwark against the worst excesses of gentrification. (Yes, property taxes are a factor, but owners have more say than renters do, something not lost on the Galapagos crew.) In any event, the broad outlines aren't that far apart.

It's the discussion of the details, and the players getting acquainted, that needs to happen. So far, all we've seen are a few PR blunders between people who don't know each other yet.


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