Talking With Robert Elmes, Executive Director of Galapagos Art Space

Photo via Galapagos Art Space
Photo via Galapagos Art Space

How long ago did you first start to think that leaving Brooklyn was the best move for Galapagos? And what was the final straw that made you decide, OK, it’s time?
When they came for the vulnerable in Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, and the East Village I thought we’d be safe in little, tiny north Brooklyn, but then the market came for us. Arguably, New York City can no longer aggregate the most avant-garde voices and untested ideas that transformed the city so beautifully over such a long period of time. We began to notice this over the last decade, slowly at first, and then all at once.

How do you see Brooklyn art galleries changing in the next five to ten years?
The city is going to see an accelerating loss of the small, mission-driven galleries that focus on the early years of an artists career. Galleries—especially those run on vision and guts—turn over from time to time as people expend their vision or move on the newer challenges. I think that a looming issue for New York City is the inability to replace them with spaces that will take the same care and delicate approach, not to mention the time, to presenting the work. On the upside, the amount of lost opportunity artists have been experiencing being in the high-cost environment of New York City will begin to be made up in cities like Detroit, where the pace and acquisition of opportunity will in fact dramatically accelerate. If you want to get your work on a wall or your foot on a stage it might not happen in an environment where the gallery or performing arts venue is paying ten times the rent it was paying a decade ago. Advancement requires both sides—the missioned presenter and the visionary artist—to exist in the same conditions at the same time. That’s happening in Detroit.

Would you recommend an aspiring curator open a gallery here, and then relocate after building up a base of supporters and a coherent vision? Or is Brooklyn to be avoided, for the present?
When I started Galapagos Art Space in the early 1990s, the threshold of entry was very low, and consequently I was able to fail over and over in order to learn what not only I was supposed to do day in and day out, but what I wanted to be doing day in and day out. It took three years of building Galapagos Art Space with rent parties every month to finally cross the first finish line. If I were back in the early stages of my career I wouldn’t have that luxury. In 2015’s New York City, we all know that your idea had better hit the ground running and be successful in three months or your going to burn through your funding and have to close your doors, compromise your vision, or at worst, both. I would take whatever stake I was able to gather together from family or with friends and I would run, I wouldn’t walk, I would run to Detroit. It costs 95 percent less to rent something here than it does in New York City. The advantage in time and experimentation, and in caring about the artists you present, is priceless.

What were some of the benefits of operating here?
Time is always a factor determining not only your experience of your own epoch but your success within it. New York City into the 1990s and even into the early 2000s was a place where ideas shared with other people who had equal amounts of time led to a form of experimentation that incubated new vision. Layered on to a population density and 20th century mass transportation model made New York City unique in the density and diversity of thought that it held in its neighborhoods and boroughs. Detroit is about everything old being new again, and transportation and diverse ownership models are going to be born here that will remodel what it means to live in or adjacent to a downtown core. We’re about to see a decade of entrepreneurial thinking reimagine ownership, payment and momentary, ubiquitous access to what makes a city run efficiently and create opportunity for its participants. Detroit is going to lead that and the chance for men and women of ideas and enthusiasm to participate is open and clear. •


  1. In regard to NYC change is constant. Oh the same avenues for business development arent available that were in the 1990s? No kidding. So one cannot succeed in NYC in the same way on the same path that Mr. Elmes did? Maybe thats ok. After all there are lots of ways to get into the restaurant business. Like take out a loan on properties built by public tax dollars that you accumulate for a fraction of a penny on the dollar by dispossession.

    As for Detroit. I would suggest that one might have a proven track record in this city or actually have lived there for any amount of time before professing to know how is has could or ever will go there as a gallerist
    To speak with such authority on subjects one knows very little about especially in regard to the city of Detroit and its art market is not just asinine it may actually be dishonest.


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