New Patrons, New Poachers, or Both?
If you didn’t barricade yourself into an art news bunker to wait out the Art Basel Miami Beach carpet bombing last week, then you may have seen the announcement that Brooklyn’s celebrated Galapagos Art Space will be moving to Detroit in 2016. Their migration will end roughly 20 years of eclectic for-profit performances and cultural events in the borough, ranging from a weekly cabaret circus to an ongoing series of booze-friendly science lectures–as well as a variety of programs aimed at engaging with and assisting the city’s developing young artists.
According to Robert Elmes, Galapagos’s Director, the reason for the migration is simple: The rent is too damn high to stay in Dumbo, or anywhere else in New York for that matter. As he told Colin Moynihan of the New York Times, "A white-hot real estate market is burning a hole through [NYC’s] affordable cultural habitat. And it’s no longer a crisis, it’s a conclusion.”
In comparison, overhead in Detroit isn’t just friendlier–to paraphrase R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, it likes you so much that it’ll invite you over to sleep with its sister. Elmes notes on Galapagos’s new Detroit home page that for the price of “a small apartment in New York City,” the organization was able to buy a pupil-dilating 600,000 square feet of exhibition space in the Motor City. This sea change in cost efficiency will empower Galapagos to not only continue producing the type of multi-faceted programming that made them beloved in the first place, but also to continue growing in exciting new ways, such as hosting a Detroit Biennial in 2016.
Now, I’ve written before about the never-ending financial atrocity that is running a for-profit exhibition space, so I fully understand and (largely) support Elmes’s decision to bail on Gotham. We can debate whether moving to Detroit is the exact right response to the dilemma–not to mention whether the art industry really needs another biennial. But I don’t think anyone with at least one foot in reality can contest the notion that, for more and more New York-based art entrepreneurs, a drastic response to the grim fiscal facts is needed.
However, the Galapagos situation got me thinking about poaching, especially in the context of art-starved and tech-rich Silicon Valley, where the idea of throwing duffle bags full of cash to lure valuable software engineers or C-suite executives from one venture to another is standard practice.
I’ve previously covered the historical and continuing friction between visual art and the Bay Area, so I won’t use this space to reassemble the troubled cultural picture in the region. Yet I still firmly believe that a more perfect union between contemporary art and the tech world’s Fertile Crescent is inevitable.
Sure, the relationship is awkward. But based on everything from arts incubators in San Francisco to blue chip pop-up spaces in Menlo Park, it seems to me that there’s more than enough mutual interest to make visual art a serious presence in and around the Valley in the not-too-sci-fi future.
Given that context, is it crazy to think that there’s an opportunity for NorCal capitalist royalty to subsidize venerable-but-squeezed New York contemporary art outfits into switching coasts?
For instance, say Marc Andreessen and Laura Arillaga-Andreessen found out that Galapagos was seriously considering leaving New York for Detroit because of financial pressure. If they really wanted to become major arts patrons in the Valley, wouldn’t it make sense for them to call Elmes and say, “Hey, we heard you’re thinking about moving to a city that most rich people would still rather permanently swear off toilet paper than visit. What if we bought you a space in Mountain View, or covered the cost delta between what you’d pay in Detroit versus what you’d pay here? Would you come to northern California instead?"
I’m not saying that Elmes would or should accept the offer in this hypothetical. The type of arrangement I’m describing would force many gallerists to trek through an ethical and philosophical Swamp of Sadness that they may never emerge from. (RIP Artax.) But wouldn’t he at least have to take that phone call and consider the proposition?
And before you answer, let me remind you that some of the world’s most well-known art museums have started franchising themselves internationally. Say what you will about the pure-hearted cultural value of expanding their reach to under-served audiences, but the Guggenheim Bilbao and the in-progress Louvre Abu Dhabi wouldn’t exist if their brain trusts hadn’t been swayed by major financial incentives.
From a Silicon Valley art patron’s perspective, the Galapagos situation proves that notable elements of the New York art industry can now in some sense be viewed as distressed assets. So if you really want to think big and change the cultural landscape of your region, then what makes more sense: assembling just another private collection, endowing just another public institution…or potentially poaching an entire for-profit scene?
Maybe we’ll never know. But if someone with cavernous vaults and deep love for contemporary art wanted to find out, I think it would be worth shaking the money tree to see what might drop into her hands.