THE BLOG
09/23/2014 04:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Digging Into the "Why" of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation With Danny Simmons

Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation was created out of necessity for Danny Simmons and his commitment to art.

With this weekend being their annual Gold Rush Awards fundraiser in New York, I caught up with Danny to learn the story of how Rush began.

Deroche: What led you to want to create the foundation?

Simmons: The organization started because I'm an artist. I'm a painter and a poet, but I was mostly a painter at that time.

Around 1990, I had been running around trying to get a show. I noticed in SoHo that none of the galleries really supported emerging artists of color, and very few had any artists of color. So I decided to start giving shows myself, because if I couldn't find a place to show my work, then a whole lot of artists couldn't find a place to show theirs either.

Deroche: So how is it you managed to start throwing your own shows and eventually start Rush?

Simmons: Before Def Jam, Russell had the offices for Russ Productions. I went to him and asked if I could use his office walls to have a show. The show was me and a sculptor Howard McCalebb, and it was wildly successful. So we continued on, and he opened Def Jam where for three years in a row, I produced the annual Def Jam art show.

After that I opened a gallery in my home called Sanctuary Gallery, and from there I opened up a gallery in Tribeca called Annext. After a year we got priced out by the rising prices in Tribeca. I started doing independent shows again and really couldn't find any space. Everyone was telling me I needed to be a nonprofit if they were going to donate space to the cause so I decided to start a nonprofit.

My brother said he'd help, but also wanted to include some programming for kids since funding was being cut for so many children's programs. I thought it was perfect because we could get artists to teach the kids.

We had a fundraiser that raised $250,000, and opened the gallery in Chelsea, becoming the first gallery on that block of 26th street.

Deroche: How has it grown?

Simmons: With the gallery and the nonprofit started, in our second year, I bought a building in Brooklyn and created the Corridor Gallery. So now we have 2 galleries running, 1 was to target emerging artists and the other was to target community artists, which were people who did art, but weren't really trying to break out in the art world. It was more for the community to come see art, meet their neighbors that are artists, and so forth. It was more of a learning educational space where art was the tool.

Looking around Chelsea I saw that we were close to 10th avenue and on the other side of 10th avenue were the projects. The artists would walk by the projects, but they'd never speak. Kids were over in the projects playing, but they were never in the galleries. So I went over and found an organization that works with kids, we partnered, and then from there we started our children's project. It's just grown from there.

Every year it gets bigger, we're in schools now, we've got gallery programs, bunches of shows in both galleries, dozens of teaching artists and it's grown over the last 17 years.

It's an organic kind of story. It happened because it needed to happen.

Deroche: Why'd you start the Gold Rush Awards?

Simmons: We have a fundraiser in the Hamptons that raises a lot of money and benefits the foundation as a whole, but there's nothing specifically to benefit the galleries. This puts the galleries in sort of in a holding pattern, and it becomes hard to grab money when our donors are mostly children's focused. They understand the galleries, but see them as support to the children's program.

I see it as its own standalone public service to artists, but a lot of people don't give a damn about adult artists. They care about children learning and creativity and arts, but a lot of people assume adults chose a life as a starving artist, and that they'll find their own way.

The thought behind these events we're having now is that they need a dedicated fundraiser, and we need to develop a dedicated pool of people who understand supporting artists independently from supporting our youth programs. It's also for artists to recognize people in the arts that are doing great work, and have done great services to the arts. That's why I started Gold Rush.

Photo courtesy of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation.

Deroche: What's special about the event this year?

Simmons: It's been sort of ancillary event until this year when we've focused more on it. We've really folded the art world into what we're doing. There's a great benefit committee this year and important people in the arts supporting this. We're honoring people that the arts really know to have done great work for emerging artists.

Like any fundraiser it's designed to grab people's imagination.

Deroche: Where do you see things going for the foundation from here?

Simmons: We need to be in another city in the country besides New York. I'd personally like it to be in Detroit where the arts is blooming, or a city like Baltimore where the arts are really needed. Somewhere where it's going to make an impact. I want to see another like our Brooklyn gallery, where we have kids in there on the weekends, we're involved in the school, in the neighborhood, and we have adult artist exhibitions going on all the time.

Deroche: What's been the biggest milestone for you?

Simmons: There are some big stories, but there's one story that always sticks out in my mind about how much good this thing does.

There was a little kid in our program who must've been about 10 and lost his mother, then lost his grandmother in the same year, so it was just him and his grandfather. We were in a school that is right down the street from the gallery. The education director lives across the street from the school. She was on her way to the gallery and she ran into the little kid. The kid ran up to her and hugged her around her legs. The teacher asked why he was so happy and he said "because I got to do art today."

This little kid who lost his grandmother and his mother, found some sort of comfort in being able to create art, and we put art in that school. That's my favorite story.

Deroche: You've been around music and art for a long time, how would you describe its role in creating social change?

Simmons: The whole idea behind Rush, the underpinning behind it, is to be able to be socially responsible. Art is an amazing tool for people to unleash their voices and their creativity and free thinking. Once people have realized that sort of thing, and they start looking at the world around them, they realize we're in trouble and that their voice can help change that. You always find artists at the forefront of social change movements.

Some people I know, Talib Kweli and a number of artists, went down to Ferguson. There are a lot of artists talking about social change and it helps to make the public in another way how important it is that we pay attention to this world, and try and do something to make it a better place.

There are people out there that make a difference quietly. Talib, with his music, and some of these artists like Dread Scott who's worked with Rush for years, make big differences in our lives. I created Def Poetry as a place for people to have their voices heard, and these voices that spoke mostly for change.

Russell and I came from a father who was an active civil rights guy and taught black history. He always taught us to be involved, to make a difference, so this is just one of the ways we're trying to make a difference.