Openings at Real Estate are hectic business. Crowds pour into Manhattan Avenue and occasionally into the nearby Mexican restaurant, Acapulco (art is often best enjoyed after enjoying cheap and plentiful huaraches). Following the reception of “Mixed Bag,” the current group drawing show, Willis’ rock band The Listeners performed at Magick City, another quirky hybrid venue a few doors down that does everything from production of his own kombucha at the organization of Steely Dan Listening Parties. The prevailing mood was buzzing, eerie, and upbeat, a throwback to a slightly lawless spirit that more and more seemed poised to fade away in New York City.
Willis’ relationship with the real estate industry is nuanced, and he is more than aware that rising rents are one of the main reasons New York is increasingly hostile to artists. “I didn’t move here to walk past a million shiny condos and watch all the decent restaurants, galleries and clubs close,” he said. “It was fun to find myself in real estate. But you can influence change in cool and modest ways. ”
One of those ways could just be paraphrased as: don’t work with morons. Willis prides himself on being selective when it comes to the owners 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 you can possibly have in New York.” In some cases, he said, it 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 music fan,” added Willis. “Most of them are creative types who are excited about doing something a little different – and not sitting in a cubicle at Douglas Elliman, reading the company manual.” The other brokers are painters or videographers; one of them, John Russell, is also the bassist of The Listeners.