Jeremy Willis at Real Estate during the group drawing show “Mixed Bag,” which he co-curated with Joe Bradley. Courtesy of Real Estate.
Art and real estate have a long, complicated, and often antagonistic relationship; as rents go up in the neighborhoods artists and gallerists help foster, many of those same people are forced to move out. But a new venture in Brooklyn wants to show that, at least in its own idiosyncratic case, they might be able to get along.
Located at the northernmost tip in the neighborhood of Greenpoint, Real Estate is a gallery with a secret. The front room of the art space, opened in early 2017, is a white cube that is currently showcasing works on paper by Dana Schutz, Joe Bradley, Stanley Whitney, Peter Saul, and 27 others. But tucked in the back is a functioning real estate agency, Box Street Properties, which handles rentals and occasional sales in the borough, as well as in Manhattan and Queens.
Both ventures are overseen by the artist Jeremy Willis. (The gallerist Lisa Cooley, whose eponymous Lower East Side space shuttered in 2016, was an advisor early on but is no longer involved.) Around 2010, Willis decided to get his broker’s license, since sales of his own paintings were flagging. Somewhat unexpectedly, he found that he was a real estate natural, but was turned off by the standard practices of the agencies he was working for.
Installation view of “Necropolitan Avenue,” a two-person show from Joshua Abelow and Steve Keister. Courtesy of Real Estate.
“I kept thinking: Why is this business so scuzzy?,” he recalled on a recent afternoon at the gallery. “If I just go do this on my own, maybe I can do it in a way that would not suck.”
The ability to merge paying-the-bills with following-your-passions was a tempting one. The actual ground-floor real estate for Real Estate came via a landlord who Willis says is uncommonly supportive of arts and culture. They met after Willis helped him find a commercial tenant for a venue around the corner, later helping the landlord rent the apartments on the floors above the gallery. Willis then found a financial backer who was willing to take a chance—Kenan Gunduz, a college friend who has worked in the real estate business for about a decade, and who also runs a recording studio in Brooklyn.
From the start, the idea was for Box Street Properties to fully float the whole operation; regardless of how much or how little art the gallery sold, it would be able to stay in business. “That means we can show what we want,” Willis said.
Text-heavy paintings by Alicia Gibson kicked off programming last February, followed by a two-person exhibition by Joshua Abelow and Steve Keister that opened this past summer, and a solo from David Humphrey in the fall. Willis had a list of artists he was dying to work with, and found that many of them—including those showing with established galleries in Chelsea or the Lower East Side—were more than interested. Future exhibitions are in the works with the likes of Steve DiBenedetto and Jess Fuller, among others.
“Most artists, especially older ones, I think, they moved to New York to do cool, weird, scrappy stuff,” Willis said.
Sandra Wazaz and Keegan Brady perform at Real Estate as part of a series curated by Nia Nottage. Courtesy of Real Estate.
Shawn Escargia performs at Real Estate. Courtesy of Real Estate.
Openings at Real Estate are hectic affairs. The crowd spills out onto Manhattan Avenue and occasionally into the neighboring Mexican restaurant, Acapulco (art is often better appreciated after enjoying cheap and ample huaraches). Following the reception for “Mixed Bag,” the current group drawing exhibition, Willis’s rock band The Listeners performed at Magick City—another eccentrically hybrid venue a few doors down that does everything from producing its own kombucha to hosting Steely Dan listening parties. The prevailing vibe was buzzy, strange, and optimistic, a throwback to a lightly anarchic spirit that, more and more, seems on the verge of extinction in New York City.
Willis’s relationship to the real estate business is nuanced, and he’s more than aware that rising rents are one of the primary reasons why New York is increasingly hostile to artists. “I didn’t move here to walk by a million gleaming condos and watch every decent restaurant and gallery and club go out of business,” he said. “It was funny to find myself in real estate. But you can affect change in cool, small ways.”
One of those ways might simply be paraphrased as: Don’t work with jerks. Willis prides himself on being selective in terms of the landlords he partners with. “I feel like now, more than ever, you have to be a person of integrity and your word,” he said. “The idea is to be the most ethical, decent version of a real estate agency that it’s possible to have in New York City.” In some cases, he said, that also comes down to hiring like-minded people who are invested in preserving the city’s creative spirit.
“No one works here as an agent who isn’t an art lover, or a fan of music,” Willis added. “Most of them are creative types who are excited about the idea of doing something a little different—and not sitting in a cubicle at Douglas Elliman, reading the corporate manual.” Fellow brokers are painters or video artists; one of them, John Russell, is also the bass player in The Listeners.
Installation view of “Overheard,” a solo exhibition by David Humphrey. Courtesy of Real Estate.
Many of the exhibitions stretch into the back office and much of the programming would unlikely be supported in more traditional corporate confines, to say the least. A few months back, a massive mixed-media-on-vinyl-banner piece by David Humphrey loomed imposingly over the broker’s desks, featuring a hauntingly funny image of a poodle with droopy breasts. On Friday evenings, a performance art series curated by Nia Nottage takes over the front space; recent iterations have included a nude performer being buried beneath rocks over the course of two hours and a more interactive piece in which attendees were asked to stream Britney Spears songs on their cell phones.
“The conversation in here is about art all day,” Willis said. “We’re doing our day job and our fun job at the same time.”