Russell Simmons is known for many things, but one thing people may overlook is his founding of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, which he started in 1995 with his older brother, painter Danny Simmons. Each year since 2000, the brothers have partnered with Bombay Sapphire to put on the Art For Life Gala (this year it takes place during Art Southampton weekend), and on July 26, the event honors Michael R. Bloomberg, Valentino D. Carlotti, Jason Flom, Kimora Lee Simmons, and Featured Artist Carrie Mae Weems (who is also one of our Most Important Visual Artists of 2014 (So Far)) for their career achievements and philanthropy.
In the past, Featured Artists at the gala have included Shepard Fairey, Kehinde Wiley, Yoko Ono, and Rashid Johnson. One artist in particular, Hebru Brantley, was featured in the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series Finale at SCOPE Art Show during Art Basel Miami in December 2012, where Jay Z saw and bought one of Brantley's pieces. Subsequently Swizz Beatz and Nicki Minaj became Brantley patrons, also.
We caught up with Russell, who at the time was on his way to yoga, to ask about the development of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, the Rush Arts Galleries, and the value of arts education. He also let us know that our girl Niykee Heaton will be performing at the gala.
Nothing happens without creativity. Every step you take, you imagine it, it happens.
How have you aimed to grow the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation since 1995?
Well, every year we get a lucky boost. This year, we got a million dollars for the scholarship program. It’s really necessary for us to create programs for African-Americans and other people of color, so that they have a chance to compete. The scholarships are for that purpose, and it's become bigger than we imagined. Secondly, we have about a million dollars in the bank, and hopefully there will be more after the auction. You never know. Sometimes you have an auction, and you make a whole lot of money. Through the whole process, we continue to try to educate kids and give them practice and opportunities to promote their creativity.
To me, it’s unbelievable that kids go to school and learn about math and science and never have a chance to appreciate or exercise their creative muscle. Nothing happens without creativity. Every step you take, you imagine it, it happens. Cultivating that development is a very important part of a young person’s education. If it’s not, then we are making schools that are like prisons, and that’s what we don’t want. Schools are like prisons without creativity and without exercising the creative mind. That’s just my take on it. We know that kids do well scholastically when they get a chance to practice and appreciate art.
Schools are like prisons, and kids don’t get a chance to exercise their creativity.
How did you decide to honor this year's Featured Artist, Carrie Mae Weems?
Well, that was the board. The board and my brother Danny felt excited about featuring her, and I’m supportive of it. I can’t take credit for that.
I’m especially excited to see the artists who are performing, too. The opening act this year is Niykee Heaton, who I signed for All Def Digital. She’s on Capitol Records, and she’s a creative force to be reckoned with and to be inspired by. She’s a 19-year-old kid, but she’s amazing.
What criteria do you or the board use for picking a Featured Artist each year?
It varies; it always differs. We like to feature accomplished artists, and half the time they but come back to our galleries and teach the kids to practice art. It’s a great experience. Sometimes it’s about an artist who wouldn’t get recognized otherwise, even artists who might not attract funding. Our main goal is to raise funds, so other times the criteria is that the artist might be helping us raise money. We pick great artists who may just be getting successful but aren’t always mainstream yet. Sometimes we pick a big artist, like Francesco Clemente, Kara Walker, or Kehinde Wiley. They’re all different.
What is it like to see a visual artist's career rise after catching them early, like for example, Hebru Brantley?
It feels great. It feels like you were really involved in helping somebody achieve a certain status in the mainstream art world. I’m more excited about watching the students in our program come back and join us in educating children—students who come back 15-20 years later and teach in our gallery. That to me has been the best moment, to walk in the gallery and see students learning from the previous generation.
Music artists want to be in films much more than they ever did. They want to be designers.
How do you see the visual art world intersecting with the music world in 2014?
Because of different vehicles and distribution, artists are getting their creativity out in more ways than one. More often than not, artists aren’t just painters. Singers are poets. Poets are writers. Actors are directors. Because people have so many vehicles and distribution for their creativity, and so much more global communication, they are able to use their creativity in various different ways. That’s something that I notice more and more. Music artists want to be in films much more than they ever did. They want to be designers.
What are some of the most touching or inspiring things you’ve seen happen as a result of the Rush Foundation’s work?
The kids who otherwise would not get a chance to find and appreciate art…That’s the key to all that we do—teaching kids to expand their minds. Like I said, schools are like prisons, and kids don’t get a chance to exercise their creativity.