Volcanic Archipelago

Williamsburg’s art explosion at Galapagos

Two young Japanese girls with impossibly small handbags paused as they walked past the plate glass windows of Galapagos Art Space on North Sixth Street in Williamsburg.

“Look, it’s a clown!” exclaimed one, before continuing to the trendy club next door.

The clown in question was Taylor Mac, dressed in his usual hodge-podge of colorful regalia and entertaining the crowd with a ukulele at the first anniversary of the Gayronic Art Jam, a huge celebration of avant-garde performance. In a neighborhood beleaguered with hipsters and a mind-boggling number of Thai restaurants, Galapagos stands as an essential example of the New York state of mind.

“It was always my goal to make Galapagos the new… what P.S. 122 was known for in the ‘80s, with a bar,” said artistic director Travis Chamberlain. “Williamsburg seemed to be where the East Village was when I came on, and it just felt like all those things were trying to happen, and it just needed someone to see that, and put those two things together.”

Galapagos put down roots in Williamsburg nearly a decade ago, serving as a place for artists to show their work and attend film screenings at the popular and ongoing Ocularis series. But over the past two years this industrial-style warehouse space with cavernous ceilings, candles on the wall, and a shimmering reflecting pool has made incredible advances in expanding their programming. It has paid off—the space now stands as a bona fide New York City cultural destination.

Chamberlain, a director who interned with The Wooster Group, is largely responsible for that evolution. In the year and a half he has been with Galapagos, he has helped turn a ragtag artist hangout into a viable, for-profit business.

In the club’s spacious front room, which houses a bar, two stages showcase bands or performers around a theme every night. Galapagos used to do two events a night, seven days a week, in the front room. In 2006 that changed to four events a night, plus late night parties with weekend promoter DJ Boyracer.

“The idea is even in the music we book here, to get stuff that has a performance element, or get people to book a whole evening. Rather than band after band that have nothing to do with each other, trying to get a coherent evening of entertainment,” said Kyle Jarrow, marketing manager. Chamberlain runs his theater series Evolve the same way he runs other shows.

“It functions on a rock-and-roll financial model, meaning that the artists do not have to fork over money to rent the space,” said Chamberlain.

“They’re basically curated like a band would be curated…and then we do a door split just like any other venue. It’s pretty much load in, load out… just like a band does. I just believe that shows should be portable… I moved here to be a director, and I got really frustrated with people saying ‘If you don’t have money, we can’t give you a space.’”

This model attracts a wide variety of artists and patrons alike.

“What I think is really rad about Galapagos is that I think it’s a pretty mixed crowd, almost every night…even when the programs skew very queer,” said Jarrow.

At Galapagos, almost anyone who can bring in an audience can get space for their show.

“The staff at Galapagos is great to work with,” said Earl Dax, curator of the monthly Gayronic Art Jam. “Travis of course has been very supportive and encouraging—everyone really has.”

Dax compared Galapagos to the old Café Chino, saying, “Galapagos is more established and more business-oriented, but still that same spirit of ‘Do what you want to do, anything goes. Whatever you want to do, we’ll make it happen, as long as we don’t get sued.’”

On a chilly March evening, this meant that performance artist and former Mr. Lower East Side Neal Medlyn was able to team up with the Wau Wau Sisters’ Adrienne Truscott for “Superstar Duets.”

So, while the packed crowd in the front room enjoyed some experimental films, the audience in the back room was witness to a slightly bizarre show featuring copious onstage nudity and experimental music.

“I figured I’d make each week a different star,” said Medlyn, whose Duets included pairings with Kenny Mellman and Dynasty Handbag.

“When I first came on, we weren’t allowed to use the back room, which was a big thing,” said Chamberlain. “It had contributed to the golden days of early Galapagos.”

The club is working with the city Buildings commissioner to get a liquor license for this room.

“We’ve really made an effort to have more programming, and a wider variety,” said Jarrow. “It was getting really band-oriented for a while, just a lot of music, but there’s tons of clubs that do that…. and not a lot of places that have performance art.”

Galapagos is facing the same pressures as venues like Fez, which closed, and HERE and Dixon Place, which are “reconfiguring,” and has responded in turn.

“Our rent recently went up 10 times, which is huge, and there was no way we could have done that on the old model they were using,” said Chamberlain. “So in 2005 and starting in 2006, we were preparing for this huge rent hike, amping up and honing how we do things around here.”

“One of the things happened is we opened the back room, so now there’s two simultaneous shows. So we’ve actually doubled the amount of programming,” added Jarrow.

Another source of revenue are the private events held at Galapagos. Chamberlain said that this month the club will host their first lesbian wedding.

“We’re sort of a community-based arts venue, so we’re really about building a community and a place where people can hang out and talk about art,” said Chamberlain.

The whole team at Galapagos seems dedicated to this mission.

“Travis and all the staff really expend large amounts of energy toward doing great things,” said Medlyn. “They seem to quickly be establishing themselves as one of that ever-changing handful of reliable places to see really great and exciting things.”

“It’s an awesome place to showcase my work,” said Miss Lower East Side, Dynasty Handbag. “I do all kinds of weird stuff here, and always have a great response. It seems like everyone who works here is into the same idea, and has the same community vibe about it. At other places, they just want the show to be done and they want the money, but they don’t want to participate in the production, and I feel like this place is different.”

Of course, nothing lasts forever. As the neighborhood goes more upscale, rent will surely rise again.

“We are exploring growth and development and taking the project to other locations. Of course we’d love to stay here as long as possible, and we hope the community recognizes the contribution we are able to bring,” said Chamberlain. “I mean, we can fight the good fight for as long as we can—and we will.”

For now, any night at Galapagos is a good night to go, from the Monday Night Burlesque to the Friday Night Fight Club Dance Party. Shows are low-cost or free, drinks are cheap, and the vibe is always warm and cool.

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