Russell Simmons on his Family-Built Arts Organization Dedicated to the Next Generation of Great Artists

Founded by three brothers in 1995—media mogul Russell Simmons, visual artist and community organizer Danny Simmons, and Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons of Run-DMC fame—Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation has been providing educational programs and exhibition opportunities to thousands of underrepresented youth in New York City for 20 years. In anticipation of Rush’s 20th Anniversary celebration and auction “Art For Life,” we spoke with Russell Simmons about the organization’s history, some personal highlights from the auction, and more. 

  • Russell Simmons, image courtesy of Fadil Berisha.

    Russell Simmons, image courtesy of Fadil Berisha.

Collin Munn: Can you start by giving us some background on the founding of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation? What were you and your brothers seeing in the early 90s in New York that led you to create this unique and important organization in 1995?

Russell Simmons: My brothers and I have always seen the need to continue to cultivate creativity in our communities. I always tell this story about us seeing housing projects that were and still are directly across the street from the arts district in Chelsea. We hung out in Chelsea, and we saw the disconnect—many people didn’t even know there were art galleries across the street. We partied with artists—really great underrepresented artists—that we showed at my offices. We needed to start the foundation to support our youth, the artists, and our communities.

CM: As you celebrate Rush’s 20th Anniversary, can you describe some projects you found particularly successful or inspiring from your organization's history?

RS: There are so many successes and sources of inspiration that have come from Rush. We have young men and women that have grown up with Rush, through our Arts Education programs, who are now successful young architects, visual artists, and more. 

From our gallery programs and support of underrepresented artists, there have been so many artists that have come through Rush early in their careers… two that come to mind immediately are in our “Art For Life” Benefit Auction going down during Art Week in Miami this year—Kehinde Wiley and Wangechi Mutu. 

One of the greatest things at Rush is the #RushFamily we have built—artists that have been involved with us since day one, and continue to give back—as is evident with Kehinde and Wangechi. Our efforts with the upcoming auction will help us raise more funds to give back to the next generation of artists.

CM: What are some of the artworks that particularly stand out to you in this year’s auction? What about the work or artist especially grabs your attention?

RS: We have an iconic photograph from iconic Ed Ruscha. Shinique Smith’s use of color always makes me smile, and she has been so incredibly supportive of our work over the years. Rashid Johnson of course comes to mind. I recently spent some time with him at the Drawing Center in Soho and saw his “Anxious Men” show, so for him to give us one of these studies is really meaningful, especially knowing it’s a testament to the state of social justice, police brutality, and all sorts of other unfortunate issues we’re facing. And of course, our Honoree Wangechi Mutu’s piece, which is just incredibly gorgeous, especially in person. Very happy to have such a beautiful work by a longtime friend and supporter. 

CM: Of the more emerging artists featured in this year’s auction who collectors may not be familiar with yet, can you describe a few who especially stand out to you?

RS: Daniel Arsham’s walkman sculpture is a great piece—particularly because of my love of music. Firelei Baez’s piece stands out, especially since she’s shown at Rush Arts in the past few years and now has a big show up at the Perez Art Museum Miami. Amanda Williams, who is one of our Rush Teaching Artists, just came off of the Chicago Biennial, where she painted houses (Colored Theory) that were going to be torn down, providing astute social commentary and hopefully social justice, through art. There are so many young creative minds doing amazing work, while all choosing to participate in our auction and give back to Rush programs.

CM: Will funds raised in this year’s “Art For Life” auction go towards supporting any specific programs or exhibitions that you can tell us about?


RS:  Proceeds will go back to supporting our emerging, underrepresented artist programs and to our arts education programs that support thousands of Rush kids every year. We hope to break some auction records to be able to support our efforts for the next 20 years to come!

Bid in Rush Philanthropic’s “Art For Life” Auction on Artsy!