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.