Russell Simmons encourages the urban arts community with his Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation

Co-founded by brothers Russell, Danny and Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons, the foundation has created educational and gallery programs, which directly serve over 2,300 students each year, in addition to providing exposure for under-appreciated artists of color.

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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.

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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.

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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.”