Russell Simmons Encourages The Urban Arts Community With His Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons attends the after party for the Gucci, Cinema Society & the Film Foundation screening of ‘La Dolce Vita’ at the Top of The Standard Hotel on June 1, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

Known around the globe as a hip-hop pioneer, Russell Simmons’ passion for breaking new talent, particularly among urban youth, is well-documented and well-respected.  What largely flies under the radar, though, is his patronage of the arts in all forms, from the turntable to the easel, and his belief in the transformative effect that exposure to culture and having artistic outlets can have on the lives of urban youth.It is that passion that in 1995 led to the creation of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation. Co-founded by brothers Russell, Danny and Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons, the foundation has since developed programs that directly serve over 2,300 students each year, in addition to providing exposure to underappreciated artists of color.

Expanding on the foundation’s purpose in 2010, Simmons, in conjunction with Complex Media, joined with Bombay Sapphire to launch the Artisan Series. This unprecedented undertaking has encouraged underground artists to emerge into the light and share their talents with the world through prominent exhibitions at Art Basel Miami Beach, a renowned fine art convention.

By cultivating their dreams with the help of the Rush foundation, these artists in turn encourage the next wave of talent to express themselves – and their art – without fear. According to the press release, last year, the Artisan Series competition received more than “3,000 submissions and precipitated the sale of seven works of art from the program’s national finalist pool, together totaling more than $100,000 in value.”

For Simmons, the intersection between purity and honesty of expression, and capitalizing on innate gifts, is a cornerstone of creativity in every profession. The intricate connection between the artistry of hip-hop and the art being nurtured by the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation is a prime example of how creativity and commerce can positively mix.

“Hip-hop is an art form like any other,” Simmons said in an exclusive sit down with theGrio. “The connection between good hip-hop and good visual art is that in both, artists are digging deep down and exposing to the world their hearts and souls. One just manifests through music and the other through creating visual art. My role is to help to provide a platform for those voices to be heard and to nurture the creative spirits of the artists.”

This may be true, but when one hears the name Bombay Sapphire, the first word of association, especially as it pertains to the black community, is not art. And when one hears that Russell Simmons has partnered with the gin maker, it can easily be seen as a financially motivated maneuver that ultimately exploits the black community – an accusation unfairly levied against Simmons since the inception of the Rush Card.

So how  exactly did this unusual partnership come to fruition?

“Both organizations have felt the need to use their resources to help others achieve their goals,” Simmons said of the collaboration with Bombay Sapphire. “It’s not unusual for organizations to team up and share resources to achieve a greater good. Art enriches the lives of whoever is brought to it. The partnership with Bombay Sapphire has allowed both organizations to deepen their reach into the arts community and touch larger audiences of artists and the public audience.”

Ultimately, Simmons pays little heed to unfounded criticisms, instead remaining focused on his true purpose: artistic growth in those youth in neglected communities who would otherwise not be given a chance to express themselves.

“Young talent always invigorates an art form by bringing new ideas, innovative techniques and boundless energy to the table,” Simmons expounded on the importance of making art accessible to all. “That in of itself forces the establishment to spend time looking at what it’s doing and examining what the conversation is. New voices at the table always change the dialogue. This partnership with Bombay Sapphire helps to bring these new voices to the table.”

Last year’s Artisan Series winners, Miguel Ovalle and Lerone Wilson, had their work installed at the  Rush Arts Gallery and Resource Center in New York City, and according to Ovalle, his life’s trajectory has irrevocably shifted. “No other challenge or personal victory has opened as many doors in my career as this one,” said the mixed media artist of his big win.

Simmons proudly spoke of both winners, sharing that in addition to sales, Ovalle and Wilson have both made new connections to galleries, audiences and collectors. Plus, their confidence has increased exponentially.  “Winning a contest like the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series may not change your life entirely,” Simmons said, “but it puts you on a path that will.”

Though at its core, the purpose of the Rush Foundation and the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series is to discover, cultivate and expose overlooked urban artists to the world, Simmons is clear that the hood is not the only place that benefits. “Everyone benefits from seeing and experiencing new talent and artists. Within the urban community it allows young people to know about different paths that their lives can take,” Simmons said of the social ramifications of his project. “Art gives hope and inspires, which is something we all need.”

Some of us, unfortunately, are more often denied access to inspiration than others.

In a recently-released study from the U.S. Department of Education, it was revealed that at more than 40 percent of secondary schools, coursework in the arts was not required for graduation in the 2009-10 school year. Not only that, the disparities in the availability of art courses in low-poverty vs. high-poverty schools illuminated the fact that affluent students are exposed to enrichment experiences and that those in low-income areas are not.

While these kinds of disheartening numbers add urgency to the Rush Foundation’s work, Simmons says there has always been, and will continue to be, a need for creative arts to be integrated into education, because it is essential to building society. “Society benefits when people begin to think creatively and outside of the box,” he explained. “Creative thinking is the beginning of seeing the solutions to problems. We have recognized that from the inception of Rush and continue to augment and supply this for our kids and artists.”

In the midst of the capitalistic society we live in, some people forget that art is not fundamentally about a profit, but more about staying to true to one’s self and leaving one’s personal imprint on the world. In a world that often overlooks them, Simmons understands that it is difficult for artists to stay motivated through the struggle that often comes with a lack of funds and recognition during this process. He relishes the part he plays in countering these circumstances and helping current and future culture creators contribute to our environment while finding themselves.

“The creation of art is motivating; finding out you have the power of imagination and creation is an empowering thing to a child,” Simmons said of the motivation behind his mission. “We do the struggle for them to get the funds to provide this service. The kids’ job is to struggle to find their unique voices. We are in a partnership — the kids and Rush.”

At this year’s 13th Annual Art for Life Gala, described by organizers as ‘Partying with a Purpose,’ Simmons’ friends across a myriad of industries ventured to the Hamptons to do just that.  The star-studded gala honored recording artists Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon, Betsy Z. Cohen of Bancorp Inc., Tamia and Grant Hill for their work with The Grant Hill Foundation, and Marc J. Leder of Sun Capital Partners Inc. The event raised over $1.9 million dollars to help the Rush Foundation promote the types of programs Simmons is dedicated to fostering.

Guests included Soledad O’Brien, Star Jones, Salt-N-Pepa, Anita Baker, Melanie Fiona, Michael Williams, Jill Zarin and more. When we asked Simmons, who is already known for his spectacular parties, about the importance of celebrity patrons to the reach of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, he said that the gala is just icing on the cake of all his initiatives.

“We have access to great friends who have the resources to do a lot of good,” he said of the gala. “A great party just sets the stage for the good to get facilitated. Our friends are already motivated to help. The party just brings us together for a great cause.”

At the end of the day, we all have the capability to be a positive influence in a child’s life. Those artists who are struggling with their creativity, unsure if their dreams are possible to achieve, are just waiting on someone to say – in word and deed – “I see you.” Simmons is one man doing just that, as he always has, and encourages all of us to do the same: to recognize artists and encourage what they have to say for the benefit of society.

The mogul says everyone can get in on improving things for the good of all.

“There are always organizations that need service,” Russell told theGrio.  “Volunteer. Donate what you can to an organization that fits your goals and be generous. Investigate what we do at Rush and see if our work is something you’d like to support.”

And to those unheard and unseen children, somewhere in urban America, sketching, painting, yearning for just one shot at their dreams?

“Open your mind and be creative; follow your heart and be true to yourself and your passions,” Simmons recommended.

To learn more about the Rush Philanthropic Foundation and this year’s Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series, click here.

article by Kirsten West Savali via

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