09/24/2012 12:10 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2016

Love, Life, Art: A Conversation With Danny Simmons

Danny Simmons is an artist. Not the kind of artist who compromises for publicity that evaporates with the emergence of the "next big thing," but a true multifaceted artist who takes pride in exposing raw, untapped talent hailing from urban neighborhoods that would normally fly under the radar.

The older brother of Russell Simmons and Joseph "Reverend Run" Simmons, Danny co-founded the iconic Def Poetry Jam, which allowed such poets as Kanye West and Malcolm Jamal Warner to share their souls with America in an authentic setting stripped of superficiality, and the underground legend Black Ice to leave an indelible print on viewers who may have never heard of him if not for Def Poets. He is also co-founder and Vice-President of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, an organization which has created education and gallery programs that serve over 2,300 students each year, in addition to providing exposure for under-appreciated artists of color.

His dedication to the arts doesn't end there.

In 2010, The Rush Foundation partnered with Complex Media and Bombay Sapphire to launch the Artisan Series. According to the press release, last year, the 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." This year, after a highly competitive submission phrase culminating at Art Basel Miami, one of the world's premiere art events, the winners selected will have their works installed at Rush Arts Gallery and Resource Center in New York City's Chelsea arts district for the month of February 2013.

"It is a wonderful thing to step out onto a level playing field," says Simmons. "I for one enjoy discovering the new and awesome talent that is represented. The national exposure this contest brings is a great career boost for these artists."

To raise awareness for this groundbreaking endeavor and the continued need for art to be included in the curriculum of low-income schools, the brothers hosted the 13th Annual Art for Life Gala on July 28 at Russell's Hampton estate. The star-studded Gala honored recording artists Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon, Betsy Z. Cohen (Bancorp Inc.), Tamia and Grant Hill (The Grant Hill Foundation), and Marc J. Leder (Sun Capital Partners Inc.), and raised over $1.9 million dollars for the Rush Foundation. Guests included Soledad O'Brien, Star Jones, Salt -n -Pepa, Anita Baker, Melanie Fiona, Michael Williams, Jill Zarin and more.

Now that excitement of the Gala has faded -- until next year -- I spoke with Danny Simmons about art, education, poetry and how societal class distinctions often cast a shadow over the possibilities available to children in urban America.


KWS: Though you work closely with your brother, Russell Simmons, to encourage urban youth to explore their artistry and expose their talent to the world, this is endeavor is reflective of your own personal experience. Tell us about your entrée into art and how it has enriched your life.

Danny Simmons: I was encouraged into art by my mother painted and dad wrote and always shared what they were doing and provided a nurturing creative atmosphere where I felt safe to explore my creative side.

KWS: 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 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 that those in low-income areas are not. Do these kinds of disheartening numbers add urgency to your work?

: Of course this info adds urgency to the Rush mission, but these are not a new revelations to us...we knew these things when we started the organization. That, with the need to provide exposure to emerging talented artists fueled the organization's inception and continues to help drive our mission. The imagination when sparked can unlock all types of barriers in adults and young people. Arts are the best fuel for the imagination in my opinion.

KWS: As a hidden poet, sometimes I shift my thoughts from being an escape from reality, to an embrace of life's possibilities. When speaking with youth in urban, low-income communities, who may view art as an abstract concept, how do you get them to believe in themselves and embrace the possibilities?

Simmons: It's easy to get young people to begin to believe in themselves once the creative process is started. When a child or anyone for that matter brings a piece of art to life it's an empowering thing. It leads them along a path of self esteem and self actualization. Art is a altering of one reality not an escape from it.

KWS: Patronizing the arts has long carried the reputation of being for "rich folk," something that those caught in the beautiful struggle can't afford to indulge in -- even if they wanted to do so. Do you come upon that roadblock in your work to bridge the gap between urban communities and art? If so, how do you combat it?

Simmons: This is a common misconception held by the poor and affluent alike. Institutions must be compelled to create gateway programs for people to enter into an institution. They are likely stewards of the public trust receiving public resources and thus responsible to people of all economic strata. Organizations should take care to do consistent outreach into less affluent communities .Rush as an organization has developed working relations with many cultural institutions so we can offer our kids the widest range of cultural engagements.

KWS: When one hears the name Bombay Sapphire, the first word of association, especially as it pertains to the black community, is not art. How did this partnership come to fruition?

Bombay Sapphire has always had a strong commitment to fostering imagination and sought out an organization that was committed long term to enriching the lives of children and that had a high public profile to make a strong partnership with. Rush is the organization that fits that profile.

KWS: What role do you think these undiscovered young talents in Visual Arts will play in reframing the conversations surrounding visual arts and the often neglected communities that birth such daring creators?

Simmons: You can never tell who is out in the world creating wonderful new art until you seek it. Last year we found two youngish artists who worked in styles and materials that was quite different than what most people have seen utilized. Both these artists have made a lasting impact on the people who viewed their work .

KWS: How have the careers of last year's Artisan Series winners taken off since being selected to have their work installed at Rush Arts Gallery and Resource Center in New York?

I've spoken with several artists who sold work and found new or first time representation as a result of the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series. Many artists have found their way into a national arts dialogue that has benefited their ability to network and find new artistic relationships.. the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series continues to open new worlds and doors to young artists.

KWS: For many, art is not something that you do, it's something that you are that simply manifests in different ways. You prove this to be true by not only painting, but authoring books and writing poetry. Do you believe that artistry and creativity is cultivated, or must one be "born with it"?

It's my case I feel like I was born with an artistic spark that my parents nurtured ...the family support between the three Simmons brothers have produced Run Dmc def poetry and the arts foundation..,these initiative were nurtured but there was some DNA that went into the thinking.

KWS: What changes have you witnessed in the youth that you mentor through the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation? And where do you envision art education - whether through the traditional education system or foundations such as yours -- in the next 5 years and the influence it will have on urban youth?

Simmons: You never know how your influence truly changes a situation but we are now seeing rush kids head off to college. Rush kids gave battled personal adversity and triumphed and these kids blossomed beyond the expectations of their families. I believe there is a direct correlation with our insertion into these kids lives and greater accomplishment and achievement through the work we do. Arts eduction will continue to be embraced as one of the most viable means to effect social change. You get to see real results from your philanthropic dollars. Whether or not the arts are reinserted back into our schools budget I believe that as the data about the benefits of an education in the arts reaches the right people, foundations and corporations their support will help to keep art alive in the lives of our kids.

KWS: It all starts with a dream. If there were one piece of advice you would give youth contemplating art, but unsure about their talent or potential for success, what would it be?

Simmons: What the hell ...go for it..


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