For a select group, the Art For Life gala, held in Water Mill, announces the real start of the summer. Russell Simmons' annual charity benefit -- this year celebrating the 20th anniversary of Rush Philanthropic Art Foundation -- is a rousing occasion for those in the music and entertainment industries to simultaneously air kiss and wallet open, all under Simmons' instruction.
This year, on Saturday night, 900 supporters dressed in 1920's garb gathered together with Simmons and his brother Danny, along with the event's honorary chairs, Dave Chapelle, fine art auctioneer Simon de Pury, Ava DuVernay, featured artist Wangechi Mutu, and presenter Bombay Sapphire Gin, to raise money to benefit the Foundation's signature arts education and gallery programs, which help over 3,000 inner-city youth every year.
Kimora Lee Simmons (not in attendance) donated $150,000 for RUSH teens, and the evening, which served as the official kick off to the 6th Annual Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series program, will continue to raise additional funds through an online auction which includes items like taking over Russell Simmons twitter account for a day ($15,000) or a Fender Squier Bullet Guitar signed by the members of Maroon 5 ($2,500).
The impressive line-up of honorary chairs was a badge of pride to Simmons. "It is not that easy to get people of his caliber in the fine art world to show up," he explained of de Pury, and waxed extensively to the crowd of his live of movie producer DuVernay's work, particularly Selma. "I went to them and said, 'You're going to get a black woman to make this script? They're going to hang her," he declared, saying she 'transformed the script into such a beautiful film."
As passionately as Simmons speaks of others, they speak of him, which may explain his ability for such a powerful turn-out and extraordinary donations.
DuVernay, example, said on their initial meeting Simmons convinced her to do yoga. Kevin Liles, the former president of Def Jam Records who worked directly with Simmons, also reminisced about how the Def Jam co-founder and business magnate has inspired him. "When I was an intern at Def Jam I saw Russell, for lack of a better term, as a God-like figure who came from the street corner to the corner suite. And he was somebody that I admired and loved and felt I could help build an empire." Now, Liles serves on the board of Rush Philanthropic. "If I can make money with him, I want to be able to give money with him," he said. "We live to give."
Support came further than the private residence in Water Mill where the fete was held, however. President Obama sent a personal letter supporting the foundation, which was read by producer and journalist Soledad O'Brien.
"For two decades the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation has empowered young Americans with opportunities to explore their creativity and express themselves through art. Our nation's daughters are future doers and change makers and your efforts are helping them unlock their greatest potential so they can reach for bold ideas and bright futures," O'Brien read on behalf of President Obama.
Despite the impactful letter all the way from the White House, and live musical performances from Elle Varner, Bell Biv DeBoe and DJ Mos, Dave Chapelle's warm and off-the-cuff speech may have stolen the evening.
"I went to an arts high school when shit was awful: there was a crack epidemic and AIDS, and all kinds of shit was happening, and the National Guard was policing [Washington] DC and I found out about this arts program, and it turned changed my life in ways I couldn't even imagine," he explained. "And now look at me today! Here I am with the 'Winner's Circle" in the Hamptons. And I have a 'Great Gatsby hat on. And I feel like I'm hungry but I'm satisfied. I'm one of those weird guys who is as well-known for what he didn't do as for what he did. I can say honestly that I'm happy. I can stay home on Tuesday nights and watch (Keegan Michael) Key and (Jordan) Peele do my show. And it doesn't hurt me at all. It doesn't hurt me at all! I'm just joking, ya'll!"