How I Collect

Hip-Hop Impresario Russell Simmons on Expanding Art's Possibilities Beyond the Art World

Hip-Hop Impresario Russell Simmons on Expanding Art's Possibilities Beyond the Art World
Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation’s Russell Simmons
In many ways, Russell Simmons is the epitome of a cultural entrepreneur. He refashioned the music industry in the 1980s with Def Jam, shook up fashion in the '90s with Phat Farm, and produced movies and hit TV shows—like HBO's Def Comedy Jam series, which launched many of the era's most famous comedians—throughout. Less known, but in some senses more personal, is Simmon's passionate support for art, something that goes back to his childhood in Hollis, Queens.
Today, the outlet for this passion, the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation—which Simmons founded with his brothers, the artist Danny Simmons and Rev. Run, of the fabled hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC—is nearing its 20th year in operation, encompassing a system of grants for artists, a youth education program, and two art galleries, one in Chelsea and one in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. To mark this month's 15th annual Art For Life benefit for the foundation, which is taking place in Bridgehampton and will honor the artist Carrie Mae Weems, Simmons talked to Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein about his approach to art patronage and collecting.
When did you first become interested in the sphere of visual art as well?
I have always been surrounded by the arts, both music and visual. My mother painted and my father was a poet. We are a family full of artists, and I understood from a young age the impact the arts could have on kids, families, and society as a whole.
What was your own experience with visual art growing up?
My brother Danny is a painter, and I would watch him create these amazing pieces—just taking a blank piece of paper or canvas or whatever he was working with and some paint and make something beautiful out of it. And Joey did music, but it’s the same thing. Taking music and making it into art with beats and lyrics.
In 1995 you founded the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation with the mission of expanding the range of opportunities in the arts for people of color. What was the inspiration behind the Foundation?
We saw the glaring need for the arts in the lives of our youth and our artists. We would be at galleries and parties in Chelsea and look right across the street where there were—and still are— project buildings and see kids who had no idea what was going on right next door. To expose this culture, this art, we needed to help our youth to keep developing their creativity, to open their minds and help them understand that their lives and worlds could expand and exist beyond those project buildings. Our artists also needed a platform that would help springboard their careers. We knew very well the impact we could make, and so that became a part of our mission. All my life I've wanted to make sure that artists have a platform, and through the foundation we work to make that happen for as many artists as possible.
The mid-'90s was a time of dramatic upheaval in the cultural landscape. At the same time that hip-hop was conquering the airwaves, America was caught in the midst of traumatic racial conflicts, with Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots freshly in mind. What role did you feel your art foundation could play in this climate?
It’s always all about the message. I think there was a lot of anger in a lot of the messages around that time. People were angry with what was going on but, as I say and believe, music, visual art—whatever the art is—can save lives. We have proven that art makes communities better and makes our kids smarter, more outspoken, more confident. Communication and making sure all our voices are heard is the positive work that my foundation is devoted to.
Can you talk about some of your proudest achievements through the Foundation?
For me, I'm always proudest and most happy when I am able give more, do more, and serve more. The reward is always in the giving, and of course in seeing the youth we serve, our Rush Kids, grow up before our eyes. We have Rush Kids like Shalisa Chang who have been with us since elementary or junior high and now are about to be college graduates receiving scholarships from us and coming back to give back as teachers in our summer sessions. It's a cycle of giving.
I would also say that some of our proudest moments have been when we are able to witness the success of artists who have taught in our galleries or shown works in our galleries and watch them go from artists who the art world may not know to artists whose work hangs in the grandest of galleries and museums, like Kehinde Wiley and so many others. Our proudest achievements are rooted in the success of those we serve.
How do you feel the range of opportunities for people of color in the arts has changed since 1995, and what role do you believe the arts played in making it happen?
Our artists of color are present and seen. They’ve always existed, always been here, and always been talented but now they are honored and recognized as important influences and creators of our culture. Carrie Mae Weems, our Art For Life featured artist, has been impacting the art world for over 30 years. They just recognized her genius with the MacArthur Genius Grant, but I've wanted to honor her for years now. Through the foundation we make more of this visibility possible and will continue to highlight all our emerging artists, not only those of color.
We live in a world where everything is divided, but I don’t take that approach. We provide opportunities for all artists, young and old, to be noticed, and we open doors for them through the Foundation. That's our mission—to give access and exhibition opportunities to emerging artists, underrepresented artists, artists of color, all artists.
A remarkably accomplished artist, Weems recently also received a career retrospective at the Guggenheim. What is it about her work that particularly appeals to you?
For the last three decades Carrie has been making powerful statements with her work that have influenced a generation of artists. She's a pioneer, and a true genius. I believe she's the first African American artist to have a traveling solo exhibition at the Guggenheim. What she embodies is everything Danny and I and the Foundation represent. If you’ve met her or heard her speak, you can tell she's just brilliant.
You have written wildly successful self-help books that draw on both your professional experience and the spiritual side of your life, which you pursue through yoga and Transcendental Meditation. One of your books is titled Super Rich: A Guide to Having It All. Today one of the supreme signifiers of wealth and cultural cachet is collecting art. Where does collecting fit into your philosophy?
Well, I don’t think you’re wealthy or rich because you collect art. You’re lucky, and it’s a luxury, but that’s not what it is to be rich. When you are truly rich you have already realized that you have everything you need. But, for me, the opportunity to collect art is the opportunity to give support and admire the talent and craft of an artist. When we honor these artists every year, we're giving back to them, recognizing their talents and calling attention to their influence, not just within the art world but on our culture at large. Art influences our entire culture. So when I’m collecting, I believe that I’m also giving, in a way.
What kind of art do you collect yourself? And when did you first start collecting?
I have different types of art in my collection, including Shepard Fairey—a former Art for Life featured artist—and my brother Danny's work, plus Basquiat, Fred Tomaselli, and more. I don’t recall when I first started collecting, but I've always had works by artists starting back in my Def Jam days. We'd hang out with tons of visual artists and we'd have works from them all everywhere. 
Who are some of your favorite artists, historic and contemporary both?
Favorite is a loaded term—I don’t really have favorites.
How do you live with art, and incorporate it into your personal life?
Art is everywhere. It truly is. In billboards and commercials, on our clothes, our shoes. Everywhere you look there's art, and how you live with it by just by being in this world. I collect art and have it in my home, my children create art constantly, and my brothers are artists. And because of the Foundation, we're constantly surrounded by artists and their work and their teachings. You can't be a part of this culture without its art.
Where do you look for new art? And where are you finding the most exciting art today?
I have the chance to see new art in the same places other others do—fairs, galleries, and the events surrounding things like Art Basel Miami Beach. Artists will also often hit me up for studio visits—I just recently visited Shepard’s studio in L.A. But, like with many forms of art, I like to see whats next, who's next. I look to the artists in our galleries, and the artist in our Artisan Series partnership with Bombay to keep me up to date.


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