In 2015, at the same time Brooklyn neo-African Abstract Expressionist painter Danny Simmons was mounting a major exhibition at Philly’s African American Museum, he was also readying a major life move.
“I was packing 300 of my paintings, 1,200 pieces of African art, toys, comic books and furniture – four long vans full of stuff – and moving to Northern Liberties,” says Simmons.
Not only did he find a big old house in NoLibs, Simmons also purchased a second space deep inside the Logan area at Old York Road for a combination gallery and office space for a Philadelphia division of his charitable Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation.
Better known as RAP (“Yeah, I know,” acknowledges Simmons with a laugh, considering one of his brothers, Russell, was the co-founder of Def Jam Music and another brother is Joe “Revered Run” of Run DMC), Rush Arts Philadelphia will be – like its Brooklyn counterpart – dedicated to bringing art to young people and building a flourishing community for artists of color.
“Emotionally, I had been in Brooklyn since my early 30s, – 31 years since leaving Queens – and built my gallery and my foundations as well as a life where I’m on several different boards,” says Simmons. “That was nice, but it got to be the same old, same old. I wanted a challenge. I’m 61 – must’ve been a mid-life crisis.”
Leaving Brooklyn was no easy task. He was the only African American on the boards on which he served.
“I wanted to help find people of color who shared my (point of view) and be art-centric.”
Still, he fell in love with Philadelphia after meeting West Philly painter/graphic artist Raphael Tiberino and befriending his family at their Tiberino Museum complex in Poweltown Village.
“I would’ve moved to West Philly but I needed a house big enough for me to build a small elevator because I have a degenerative hip problem,” he says. Simmons found and purchased a roomy house in Northern Liberties before happening onto an old, unused bank in the Logan section.
“That neighborhood needs a gallery – or a cultural identity point –as there is little in that area by way of the arts. Hey, if I had known I was going to find such a huge space for the gallery, I might’ve just gutted that bank and lived there.”
Expanding his 501c3 Rush Philanthropic Arts beyond NYC’s galleries and schools is just the challenge that Simmons craves. Simmons has had preliminary chats with local philanthropic concerns such as the Pew Charitable Trust and the Lenfest family. He’s had conversation with the Barnes Foundation and the African American Museum about partnerships and inroads into the community.
He’s looking for suitable local board members who can maintain a Philadelphia face for Simmons’ work. And Simmons has identified two initial programs that he would like to enact.
“One goal – Gallery in the Schools – will bring local artists into local schools and create a gallery in the classroom with students taking individual roles – curators, docents, writers and artists,” he says, “The other project involves kids creating their own graphic novel about new superheroes with true special powers – powers used to change the world or change their neighborhood.”
For this project, Simmons has involved several teaching artists and Kensington’s Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, which would sell the comic books when they’re printed and ready to market.
In the immediate, Simmons opens his gallery doors for the first time July 21 to exhibit a Tiberino family tribute to their father Joe, a famed muralist who passed this spring, Plus, Simmons will exhibit a handful of his own new work – but at Bazemore Gallery in Manyunk on July 9, rather than his own gallery.
“In the 25 years of having a gallery and hanging art, I’ve never put my own work on my own walls,” he says with a laugh. “That’s not my thing. That’s just janky.”