**This is paraphrased from sketch notes. This is not verbatim
Organized by Vivant Art Collection on 60 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, Pa.
Presenter Question: As an artist, philanthropist and poet, are you a visionary?
DS: With Def Poetry Jam, I saw an opportunity. I am not so much a visionary as I am one who sees opportunity—what’s there—and seize it. I am not sitting visioning things to do. A poet friend of mine bugged me about needing to take poetry to the next level. I see need and fill it.
Saw a need to start Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation in the midst of pushes to move art out of schools. I know for me, that kept me in school. Students who have art in school do better in ALL subjects. When you start thinking creatively about one thing, you start thinking creatively about all things, all of your subjects.
I have learned to pitch this kind of need to funders by bringing up the language they understand: Return on Investment. Do you know that for every dollar ($1) spent in the arts, a city gets back $1.60? In NYC, that has meant $25 billion dollars.
For the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) was about a need to showcase our work that was not in the mainstream, to find those things we need within ourselves.
Presenter Question: Danny Simmons 101 – Help us understand what is a Neo-African Abstract Expressionist Artists?
DS: It is about influence and process—automatic painting. Going to the canvass blank and painting, being a vehicle for Spirit, letting the Spirit take over. I have over 1000 pieces of African art. I also collect toys. African art is not only about the form but the spiritual message. These pieces create unconscious and conscious influence. When I look for a piece, I look for spiritual not necessarily art information.
Audience Question: What can we do to improve the mass negative images of African Americans and black men proliferated in the media?
DS: We need to own our images, be better gatekeepers. We need to collect more of our art. It is about building wealth for our communities. The thing with art is that it goes up in value. I brought a piece for $1800 or $18,000 and after three months of being sick and unable to work, I ran into the dilemma: Had mortgage and other bills to take care of. I took that wonderful piece, went to an auction and sold it for $45,000.
We need someone to look up to. There is an exhibit that a friend of mine has called Question Bridge where black men answer and ask questions on and from other black men on topics such as this. It is powerful work. You answer a question and throw a question back. That is the bridge part.
I get this reclamation stuff. But 20 years 40 years down the line where the intellectualism around taking the power out of an image or word is lost, the image of a jigaboo will still be a jigaboo. We got to think about that. We need to own the production and dissemination of our work and art.
Audience Question: We are talking about the responsibility of the artist to the community, but what is the community’s responsibility to the artist?
DS: The community has great responsibility to the artist. It is tragic when I hear really talented artists being unable to sustain themselves and having to get out of their practice. Really strong institutions are needed to back our artist communities, dare I say, rather than another artist. It would be a great personal tragedy if I was unable to continue my art, but an even greater misfortune if there are not institutions and communities backing and supporting art and artists.
That is not to say that I believe in exclusionary spaces. We should own our institutions but use them to serve our communities and greater purposes. Rush Gallery is there to serve artists not being served by the mainstream. We have to figure out what is needed and then go from there.
At that, another thing we are missing is self-sacrificing leadership. We have leaders that push and galvanize us toward their own individual objectives. Leadership needs to see need and not personal agendas. But to the question, the community has deep responsibilities to support the artists and their work.
You know, I also think artists can do that work to build community themselves. I have always said, artists need to trade art and in doing so build collections and build wealth for ourselves. That is how we raised money for the MoCADA. We asked artists to donate pieces to sell for $300. The line was around the corner in Brooklyn. Good art for $300? That is a steal. So, we raise several thousands of dollar to keep that museum going. That is primarily still how we do things now.
Audience Question: As a painter and poet, when you are inspired, how do you select which medium you are going to choose? Second question: As one who mentioned the importance of being better gatekeepers of the tradition and our art, many artists are not honest with one another about our work in order for us to grow and really grow our tradition. How do you keep those around you honest: “Hey, great job and we need to keep working on this?” (Asked by me!)
DS: Everyone has the right to be creative. It is important for us to be honest as well as gentle. There are two things folks want: To really develop and the other is validation. You know when folks send me things and it is tight, they just want to hear someone say, “Good job.” For the other folks, I just say, “Oh, okay. Nice. Definitely keep working at the Post Office.” But in all seriousness, I am honest and gentle.
To the piece on how I chose modalities, they choose me. Poetry comes to me, however. I come to the canvass. That movement is something I am guided towards rather than direct. Of course, if I have a gallery show coming up, I am going to paint. *laugher*
Audience Question: How to you stay grounded? I know your brother Russell does meditation. How do you keep your feet on the ground?
DS: I live in the hood! I say hello to people. *Laughter* If that little old lady can come and go, I should be able to as well. People move out. I move deeper in. We need examples. My living there in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn is a statement—a statement of commitment to our well-being. We need to learn what it means to stay home and take care of that home.
Back to the point of exercising more control over our communities. We have to be there. People want to be where the artists are. You saw what happened with Brooklyn. We just have to be careful about gentrification. They move the poor out. The artists come in. Then the yuppies move them out and we are disconnected from the energies that brought the lifeblood into the place in the first place. We need to learn what it means to stay home. We can move up and do both.
We need to mix community planning with art infusion.
Art grounds me. It is some place to go. It has depth. That’s how I keep my feet on the ground.
Audience Question: How to convey to funders the importance of backing the work of artists?
DS: It’s what I was sharing earlier about using funders’ language. They want to hear two things: Throw the dollar return on investment amount like from some of the statistics that I threw out earlier, and the second things is personal stories.
I often share this story with funders: There was a young kid in Corridor Gallery, the gallery wing to the foundation that I run, that loss his mother to AIDS, moved in with his grandparents and lost his grandmother six (6) months later. You know what he said one day in the art program to one of the facilitators?: “I am happy today.” She asks, “Why?” He answers, “Because I can do art today.” [The audience is awing.] See that shit? There is goes. That’s the reaction you want.
Audience Question: I want to touch on the piece on Philadelphia being a global art mecca. Philadelphia has more public art than any other city in America. It has prominent art institutions like the Brandywine Workshop, October Gallery and Vivant Collection—African-American owned—as well as the Barnes and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What do you think of doing a show highlighting the work of artists in places like Philadelphia?
DS: I was definitely impressed during my art tour around Philly. When you are from New York, you have this warped idea that everywhere else is small town. That is not the case here. Not with the Barnes and Brandywine Workshop. That is not small town. Philadelphia has global energies and perspectives. The Brandywine is what I am talking about. I have been doing my foundation for 15 years. That workshop has been going for 41 years. That is building strong institutions.
In terms of a show, I have tried to pitch it a few times. No one wants to go to a show one day and see someone painting and then come back and see them on the same painting. Visual art can get boring on TV or as a show unless you are doing dog and pony tricks and my aim is not to cheapen the work that way.
Audience Comment: Well, there is the show Art 21.
DS: I have tried. Just have not found the spin on it or the network to accept it. Having art profiled that way is important. You see what happened with Def Poetry Jam. Poetry, Spoke Word, has now reached the lexicon of our society. It is used as a teaching tool in schools, which was my goal: To have it deeply a part of and reentered into our landscape and conversations. I get it.
Audience Question: What do you think about the dialogue of art for change or art for art’s sake and that if art is not commenting on our society it is not good art?
DS: All art is good art. It just may not be relevant. For example, Corridor Gallery is for the foundation as an arm to help educate underserved communities. Rush Gallery is for emerging artists out of institutions who are not being picked up by mainstream outlets. I think about art sometimes from two different lenses. The art here at Vivant is not the art that I would post in my gallery and vice versa. However you come to art is wonderful.
Remember those Black Velvet pictures from the 90s with the buck and buff black man and the big-butted black womyn under the African sun that folks had hanging above their couches? *Audience Laughter* Hey, you might still have one hanging above your couch. That got many people into art. That is important.
The question for me is not good art or bad art, but: Are you satisfied?
Presenter Question: Any closing statements for your audience?
DS: Put one foot in front of the other. Do the work. Fill in a need. If you cannot do it, pass it along to someone who can. Pass along an idea when you see the opportunity. That is what happened with Bruce George in Def Poetry Jam. He could not necessarily do it, but I could. He was on me for a year before I caved. Then I pushed on Russell like a domino effect. Russell was not going for what he thought was dreds and a backpack until he saw a Philly artist—Black Ice—come out with Timbs and a baggy jeans. He then was like this is something he could get with. Do the work.
Shayna S. Israel is an educator, organizer, artist (poet/rapper) and founder. It is her passion for social justice and commitment to constructing spaces for womyn to develop leadership, networks and distinct voice that threads her various commitments.
This blog is to share daily writings as a way to make space for and honor creative voice.
I draw inspiration from daily happenings, news media, history, special events and whatever my heart desires.