The Silver Linings Playbook
As Rush Arts celebrates its 25th anniversary in a year of tumult, one thing is certain: Gallery Director Noah Smalls is armed with a silver linings playbook and is keenly positioned to usher in the next quarter century.
By Gina Beavers
Rush Arts is celebrating a triumphant Silver Anniversary this year; 25 years of service to artists and communities throughout New York and Philadelphia. Grand plans were no doubt made to mark this milestone; Rush is known for its amazing and successful fundraisers. The Simmons family, after all, knows a few heavy hitters.
The pandemic, however, had other plans. Shuttered businesses, quarantining, economic free fall. It was swift and disastrous for many and much of our collective cheer has been twice tested, our grand plans chastened.
But COVID-19 can neither diminish the esteem in which Rush Arts is held, nor dim the direct impact it has had on tens of thousands of people. As co-founder Danny Simmons modestly mused in an interview with TheTrove, “[Rush Arts] that’s my life’s work, I suppose RPAF has affected thousands of kids and hundreds of artists.”
Simmons and his brothers, Russell and Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons, co-founded Rush Arts in New York in 1995. The foundation’s mission is lofty: “To build a community-driven art space that provides opportunities to both local artists and curators, focused on community revitalization and relevance to the people of the surrounding neighborhoods, and arts-based educational opportunities for local youth who can benefit from them the most.”
The success of their endeavor is indisputable. Tens of thousands of children have benefited from the foundation’s infusion of the arts into classrooms throughout New York. It was the success of this model that led Danny Simmons to broaden his base to Philadelphia—North Philly to be exact – an economically challenged area where at-risk kids would greatly benefit from Rush’s arts-based educational model.
Rush Arts Philadelphia opened its doors in 2016 and the once abandoned building on the corner of Old York Road in the Logan neighborhood of North Philly, was beautifully refurbished by Simmons and the gallery was soon bustling with activity — until the advent of COVID19. The impact was swift and devastating, but like every other cultural institution around the world, Rush Arts had to adapt and modify programming in order to survive.
Enter Noah Smalls. Smalls was appointed the Philadelphia gallery acting director in 2018. He and Simmons had collaborated on art shows while Smalls worked as a curator and museum exhibition consultant. Smalls earned his MFA from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
Since March of 2020, Smalls has successfully upheld the foundation’s mission and has worked diligently to “engage our core audience of child arts students, emerging artists, and art patrons by moving our existing programs to a virtual format.”
At the helm of the gallery, Smalls clearly recognizes the imperative of keeping Rush Arts Philadelphia alive.
“Rush is deep in the streets—deep in the hood,” he impresses. “We serve the community of Logan, North Philadelphia at Rush. And it is historically economically depressed and there are a lot of social issues present, but this community is no more or less deserving of having the fine art experience. So, we need to meet them where they are.”
For Smalls, it’s all about equity.
Noah Smalls is hard to pin down. His text confirming our meeting proves the point:
“I’ll be deep into my day of gallery and collections work but I guess that’s not the worst thing….I’m in Philly on the move all day. I’m at Rush now then to Danny’s for an install, then to Upper Darby Art Gallery (his own gallery) before heading back to Massachusetts tonight for WCMA (Williams College Museum of Art) tomorrow. Let’s check in at 3 and I could at least catch you up on my day.” Shrug emoji. Laugh emoji.
For many of us even the thought of this fevered hustle might be too much to bear, but Smalls realizes that although “fun,” the day’s pace was “relatively impractical and definitely unsustainable.” He jokes at one point that he’s going to have to retire soon. He’s only 42.
When I catch up with him, his masked face appears opposite mine on our Zoom call.
“I just finished up at Danny’s and I’m heading to the Upper Darby Gallery,” he says blithely. He’s in a Lyft traveling through North Philly, his hometown; a place to which he’s found his way back more than once.
It is difficult to assess someone you’ve never met when half their face is concealed, and it makes listening all the more important – not only to the words but also to the muffled inflections. But I could immediately sense Smalls’ generous nature and authentic kindness, for in spite of the breakneck pace of his day, he could still laugh easily.
I asked him to tell me about himself, and our ensuing conversation revealed someone quite extraordinary. If you were to ask, “what is the essence of Noah Smalls?” The reply would be: “the ability to love deeply, stand loyally, embrace freely, and share generously.”
Let’s talk about Noah Smalls.
SmalIs was immersed in the world of art and privy to its inequities early in life.
“I’m from North Philly originally….I was the [mixed race] son of a black oil painter [Robert Smalls, a product of the South Street Renaissance] in the early 80s, which means he had no outlet or exposure for his work. He had been turned away by the gallery he was a member of which was the Painted Bride on South Street…He didn’t have any outlet outside of them….”
As a result, the Smalls family made their own opportunities to show and sell Robert’s paintings, including “hi-jacking” the Philadelphia Museum of Art walking tour.
The family home in Northern Liberties was an historic site and part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art bi-weekly walking tour. The elder Smalls decided to create his own gallery in the living room, and as Museum patrons made the tour, they would see Robert Smalls’ exhibit.
Noah was put in charge of negotiating sales in the family kitchen. The logic was “they wouldn’t cheat a 7 year old kid… I sold a lot of paintings for $14 or $15 back then,” he jokes. “But it really was an immersion in being an independent curator in a way and a kind of collections manager.”
He held onto those lessons and as a teenager at the Philadelphia Art Institute, he arranged for his father to have one of his first solo exhibitions. Afterwards, “I went all around the city getting his work into wherever I could show it. Any gallery that would give me the time of day, we worked it.”
As a self-professed, teenaged runner of streets, Smalls was engaging in his own creative outlets. Unlike his father’s refined pieces, the younger Smalls’ aesthetic was being forged in the rough hewn furnaces of hip hop and graffiti.
It was his Romanian mother who took him to break dancing clubs at 6 years old. And as The Golden Age of Hip Hop unfolded, Noah Smalls’ identity and artistic vision were being carefully crafted by a potent combination of filial devotion and a love of Black culture.
As Smalls reveled as a Philly b-boy, Russell and Joseph Simmons were leading a revolution from Hollis, Queens. The stunning arrival of RUN-DMC had thrust Hip Hop center stage with a crossover success that was redefining all of American culture.
Their 1984 eponymous debut album was the first rap album to reach gold status. The 1985 follow up King of Rock went platinum. And the 1986 Raising Hell made Addidas (sans laces) the shoe of choice.
The eldest Simmons, Danny, was an emerging writer and abstract painter. Through their combined talents, the Simmons brothers established Rush Arts Foundation. Rush Arts was something unique and electric; the worlds of Hip Hop and art collided and paved the way for the Hip Hop street-rooted beats, lyrics, and styles to co mingle with the curators and art patrons at the peak of the art industry.
Rush was also committed to opening doors for emerging artists of color who would otherwise be shut out of arts and exhibition opportunities.
Around the same time a 20-year-old Smalls was still dedicated to exhibiting his father’s works. “I was trying to sell my dad’s work to the African American Museum…I was trying to get somebody from the African American Museum to see my dad’s work.”
Smalls had moved into a basement apartment he shared with his cousin. He turned the modest apartment into a gallery devoted to his father’s works.
“I had the track lighting, I had the little labels…I didn’t know what I was doing!”
A friend’s aunt managed to get Dr. Diane Turner , the curator of collections and exhibitions from the African American Museum of Philadelphia (AAMP) to his “gallery.” Dr. Turner curated two pieces into an AAMP exhibit; more importantly, she hired Smalls on the spot, thus introducing him to the world of museum curation and collections.
Smalls spent the next five years at AAMP working side by side with Richard Watson, whom he credits with being his teacher.
“He taught me the skills of the craft, the nuances of how to get things done on a small budget and to adhere to a Smithsonian standard…It was really a deep immersive education I had at the African American Museum, but I never got a job, they never had a position.”
Chronic underfunding at AAMP (and most black cultural institutions) forced Smalls to continue work as a day laborer. He eventually took his burgeoning expertise to Miami where he and (future wife) Shawnette would carve out a life doing everything from selling his father’s images on t-shirts to promoting dance hall parties.
Smalls eventually got his foot in the doors of various Miami museums and institutions including Art Basel, the Frost Museum of Science, the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, and the Miami Children’s Museum. But in spite of his knowledge and curatorial prowess, he could not find a way forward in the museum system.
Smalls was subsequently accepted to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia’s Museum Exhibition and Design program on fellowship. He and his new family returned to Philadelphia, and in his last year of graduate school, he began his second stint at AAMP this time volunteering for his mentor Richard Watson.
Noah Smalls has reached the Upper Darby Art Gallery. He apologizes to his Lyft driver for talking his ear off, and then mentions he’s going to have to break-in to the building because he doesn’t have the key. Fortunately, Shawnette is working on the other side of their establishment in her fashion atelier.
Smalls enters the gallery space and, as if by fate, his father’s work is the current solo exhibit. “We’ve come completely full circle here,” he says as he gives me a virtual tour of Robert Smalls’ paintings. They are beautiful, intricate, and mysterious; his subject matter is often influenced by dreams and astral projection. His palette is brilliant jewel tones.
“He’s an outsider artist to the truest degree…he’s always been kind of outside — even his own peer groups,” Smalls says wistfully as he wraps up our tour.
Smalls settles into the gallery and tells me how he met Danny Simmons.
After graduate school, Smalls started his own exhibition design firm to manage the contracts he was securing. At the same time Simmons had begun his move from New York to Philadelphia. He was selling his home and shutting down his galleries.
“[Danny] somehow negotiated to pull off this move by having the African American Museum, take all of his artwork into the museum and then move into his home in Philadelphia.” Smalls laughs and continues, “which is by far the smoothest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Contracted to design Simmons’ upcoming exhibit at AAMP, Smalls found himself impressed by Simmons – the feeling was mutual, and in 2018 (the same year Smalls opened his Upper Darby Art Gallery) he became the acting director of Rush. Within a year of taking over Rush, he was offered a job at the prestigious Williams College Museum of Art as the Director of Exhibition and Collections Management. The collection at WCMA in Williamstown, Massachusetts is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The economic dissonance between the tiny village of Williamstown and the Logan neighborhood in North Philly couldn’t be greater, but Smalls has always been good at accepting challenges and navigating change.
And although his love of and expertise in museum curation and exhibition design has landed him the WCMA position, he recognizes that the nearly universal exclusion of black culture from museums has forced the most well-endowed institutions to scramble to embrace Black culture in order to ensure their relevance in the future.
In both settings, rich and poor, his mission is to interrupt the systemic inequities in the world of art. And like the Simmons brothers, 25 years later he wants to strengthen the bridge between Black culture and high art. Because regardless of his fine arts education, there remains the Noah Smalls from North Philly who celebrates and champions the b-boys and girls and the power of Hip Hop culture elevated by the Simmons brothers.
At WCMA, it is his job to offer a diverse perspective to help them become an “anti-racist institution, and help them reinterpret their collections and collection practices. To fully integrate equity into what they do.” But Small’s passion to tell the Black story through art is what keeps him returning to Philadelphia.
“Working under Richard, working under Dr. Turner…they’re from the generation above me. Their focus was on the movements – the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement ultimately. And that interpretation is reflected on the walls of that museum…but the art does not interpret the history, the story, the narrative, of my culture that I grew up in, which is Hip Hop.”
Smalls’ passion is both professional and personal.
“There are so many stories that have not been interpreted by our vestiges of history, and are desperately missing from the conversation I have to have with my sons about how did we get here and where are we going…. and it’s my turn now to…give my history…how I was breakdancing on the cardboard and writing graffiti; and turned that into what I do now and elevate it ultimately. If they can’t see those stories realized on the walls of our cultural institutions, how will they really internalize that fable?”
Smalls believes Hip Hop is a high art and its purpose is to teach, and he sees an opportunity to do that at Rush. He describes his curriculum which includes teaching the five pillars of Hip Hop: MCing, DJing Breakdance, Graffiti, and Knowledge .
I ask Smalls what it feels like to be working at Rush under Danny Simmons given the impact of Hip Hop on his identity and art.
“My first record as a kid, at 6 years old was…King of Rock…And now here I am…I work with Danny… If you look at Rush over the 25 years, it was founded as a bridge between Hip Hop and art. Russell was Hip Hop; Danny brought in the art. And they made this really,cool, unique collaboration which is Rush….These are things that are connected and they belong to us.”
We end our meeting when Smalls realizes he has to get ready for the 5 hour drive back to Massachusetts, but before we part, he shares the advice that Charles Blockson gave him when he accepted the job at WMCA. Blockson told him, “hold the line and go forward.”
“I understood what he meant. This is my calling from how I was raised up. From when I was a little kid hanging my father’s paintings up in our house in Northern Liberties—this is what I was born to do….[And] what I consider the deliverable to be is to change the narrative in the black cultural institution from Civil Rights to Hip Hop.”
He continues: “We have an opportunity to reinterpret our history for ourselves. I consider that my responsibility for my kids and for North Philly to meet the people where they are. This is what I consider my mission to be.”
Rush Arts Philadelphia is in good hands.
Rush Arts virtual Art For Life benefit will stream live on Saturday, November 21st at 8pm EST