NYC's Galapagos Art Space moves to Detroit

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

One of New York's most popular avant-garde performance spaces is packing its bags and moving to Detroit.

Well, to Highland Park, to be precise.

Robert Elmes, founder and executive director of Galapagos Art Space — a fixture on Brooklyn's cultural landscape for 20 years — bought the 300,000-square-foot former Highland Park High School from the school district's emergency manager. The sale price, according to the real-estate database, was $49,900.

Elmes also acquired a warehouse in Detroit's Corktown for $699,000, according to, as well as seven other properties in Highland Park.

For his part, Elmes likes to say that when you total it up, the nine properties "cost less than a small apartment in New York."

If you wonder why a major New York cultural institution would move to a desolate part of the Motor City, it all comes down to money and real estate.

"New York has become far too expensive to incubate young artists," Elmes said, "and that's our sole mission — to grow talent from emerging to mid-career. We also know young artists aren't coming to New York in the numbers they once were."

Add to that the fact that Galapagos' landlord was going to hike its rent 30 percent, and you begin to understand the decision.

Of Detroit, the 48-year-old said, "I love the energy. I love the opportunity, the space and the amount of time people have in Detroit. If you have to work 40 hours in another industry to support yourself like in New York," he added, "you can't paint at night. It just won't work."

The old high school will be the venue for Galapagos' performances, which in Brooklyn included a weekly circus, puppet shows, orchestral music and TED talks. Galapagos even sponsored a kite-flying society. Plans for nearby properties include galleries, studio space and a makerspace.

Elmes also wants to launch a "Detroit Biennale," an every-other-year arts festival that would principally take place at his Corktown building.

To give the Highland park space extra pizazz, he also plans a 10,000-square-foot lake — a much larger version of lakes he created at the Brooklyn sites. It's a bid to make the space "transformative," he said, and to dazzle audiences.

Elmes founded Galapagos in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section in 1995. But he found himself priced out, and relocated in 2008 to Dumbo, a once-cheap district on the other side of the borough.

In 2012, reading the real-estate writing on the wall, Elmes started visiting Detroit, and met with officials including Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert and vice president David Carroll. Both men were impressed.

"We helped introduce Robert to people and show him around," Carroll said. "Our real-estate and construction people walked him through buildings, and I introduced him to Gov. Snyder."

Carroll adds that a cousin in Brooklyn knows Elmes, "and he told me he was for real, that he does what he says."

Elmes also met with Detroit Symphony Orchestra president and CEO Anne Parsons, who says she found him smart and full of good ideas. As for what the move says about Detroit, she said, "It's a testament to where Detroit is and where it's going."

Detroit News reporter Louis Aguilar contributed to this report.