by April Greene
In the 1920s, pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith wrote, “The future of the motion picture lies, I believe, in the amateur film movement.” Eighty-odd years later, fledgling website YouTube, devoted entirely to amateur moviemaking, would become one of the top five most visited websites in the world, captivate 15 million people a month, and sell for nearly $2 billion.
In January 2007, Galapagos Art Space founder and director Robert Elmes said, “Artists are the canaries in New York Cityâ€™s gold mine. When they canâ€™t sustain a life here, and they have to move out, we know thereâ€™s a problem.” Six months later, his venerable institution would give notice that it was being priced out of its native Williamsburg and would have to relocate.
Neither of these two prescient art connoisseurs owned a crystal ball — experts in their fields know their territory and can make good predictions about its future. But that didnâ€™t stop me from fits of disbelief when I read the New York Timesâ€™ May 30 article on Galapagosâ€™ planned 2008 move to Dumbo.
Established in 1998 in an anonymous North 6th Street warehouse owned by a steel company, the venue has grown over the last ten years into a citywide hotspot for theater, live music, film, DJs and dancing, art openings and festivals, and even weddings. “Creative neighborhoods always need a social focal point,” Elmes told me last winter, on a mellow Friday evening at Fabianeâ€™s cafe. “A place to go with your friends and come up with weird plans late at night.” Galapagos had certainly become such a place for Williamsburg, a fixture easily taken for granted. Though the move is certainly not all bad news — the Dumbo space will net Elmes about twice the square footage for about half the rent, and is slated to be the cityâ€™s first cultural venue certified “green” by the United States Green Building Council â€“ it is a poignant and ironic turn of events for an organization that played a major role in beautifying a neighborhood previously bedraggled with meat-processing plants and tenement housing to be itself hustled out by the rent increases it helped to spur.
Galapagos’ soon-to-be-abandoned location in Williamsburg Brooklyn,
while new 29-story construction looms over the neighborhood.
– photo by Anya Szykitka
Anyone with even half an eye open in Brooklyn these days (or Harlem, or Chelseaâ€¦) knows that social focal points like Galapagos, and the creative neighborhoods that house them, are being threatened now more than ever by the unchecked encroachment of other industries.
“The tragedy for New York is that its reputation is no longer Cutting-Edge, Creative, Exciting, Sexy — now itâ€™s just Expensive,” Elmes said. “Bloomberg called the city a ‘luxury product.’ It’s no longer the automatic Oz for young artists to come to, because they know they’ll have to land here with some bank and hit the ground running just to break even. Now they might go instead to Portland or Austin or Providence. The best people won’t do their work part time, they won’t give it up to do some financial industry day job, and they won’t pay all kinds of money just to look at our skyscrapers if they can’t also do their art. General consensus is that we’ll always attract the best and brightest young people, but in reality, we have to find ways to keep earning them.”
So how to earn the interest of the artists who chip in a purported $13 billion a year to the city’s economy (and whose creative capital is largely responsible for driving up real estate prices in the first place) when they can no longer make rent and the venues that could have hosted their work are forced out of business by development? In Elmes’ opinion, go straight for the infrastructure.
“Reception has been good,” he said of his interactions with Community Board 1, which represents Williamsburg. Elmes worked with the board on the concept of expanding the 421-A program, a bill approved by City Council last December which gives tax exemptions to developers of residential properties who earmark 20 percent of their units for “affordable housing.” Elmes would like to see the bill widened to include similar breaks for developers who devote space to cultural centers on the ground floors of their buildings. “Every block could be like, ‘deli, bank, art space,’” he explained. Elmes will likely continue pursuing 421-A expansion with Community Board 2, which represents Dumbo. And the neighborhood has already seen some success with 421-A-style ventures: according to the press release on Galapagos’ website regarding the move, Dumbo real estate company Two Trees Management has been incorporating new business and residential developments with cultural institutions there for the last decade, profitably.
But even if artists are theoretically able to scrape together enough square footage to live and work here in the future, another potential wrinkle in the works is Brooklyn’s rapidly changing clientele. The continuing construction of scores of high-end apartments throughout the borough means thousands of new residents are waiting invisibly in the wings.
“I have no idea who they are,” said Elmes. “Have they had kids yet, are they going to have kids? Is the bohemian culture something that genuinely attracted them here, or was it sort of tangential? The only thing we do know is that theyâ€™re going to be more invested than the historically transient residents here — these people are paying a million bucks for their condo.” The newbies could embrace the existing cultural scenes and make them that much richer, or they could stifle them so much as to force Galapagos (and others, like its soon-to-be neighbors Arts at St. Annâ€™s and the Wooster Group), out of town. What if it comes to the latter?
“Berlin,” was Elmesâ€™ answer. “My expectation has always been to be bigger than this. We’re working to partner with venues in Berlin, Mumbai, and Beijing, but if we ever have to fold here, I’d want to be based in Berlin. There’s a historical affinity for arts and culture there, they like Americans, and it freaks them out to see New Yorkers go and tenaciously just start doing stuff. Space is dirt-cheap and everyone wants to be involved. It’s great.”
Certainly good crystal balls are hard to find, and for all we know, ten years from now Galapagos will open the first burlesque-and-hip-hop bar in the heart of Beijing, or it will be operating exclusively online with an audience twice the size of YouTube’s. But if we are to look anywhere for a good prediction — for all of New York City’s arts and artists as well as for this model venue — it should be to an expert who’s kept a lifelong bead on culture, development, and social trends. Our resident expert Robert Elmes says, “We believe that if the work we present is strong, communicative, and effective, we will survive.”