MIAMI BEACH — You don't tend to find guys in baseball caps at art fairs. So when you spot one at Art Basel Miami Beach, it's a good bet who's underneath it: Russell Simmons. The Def Jams founder has been holding court this week at the Delano, the festival's headquarters. His high-profile presence at Art Basel — he's often seen chatting on the hotel's front porch or just walking down the street in cap and jeans — has been a boon to fair organizers, some of whom have fretted privately that the otherwise hugely successful event has been a little low on non-art-world star wattage. Simmons — an Art Basel vet — is here to host a variety of events, most for his arts-education charity, Rush Philanthropic. But he's also art shopping.
What does he collect?
Simmons recently bought a Francesco Clemente and an Outtara Watts. (He hasn't yet hit the fairs but promises "I'll get there.") He also lauds the work of rising superstar Kehinde Wiley, with whom he co-hosted a dinner for the Rush Foundation Tuesday. "He's great," Simmons says of the young painter, known best for his huge and gorgeous Old Master–style portraits of African-American men.
But his picks for artists to watch are Watts and the Brooklyn-born Victor Matthews. "They're both very interesting and special emerging artists," Simmons says. Matthews is best known for the 2003 show Castle Clinton in downtown Manhattan, in which 3,000 umbrellas painted with giant butterflies were strewn around Battery Park in memory of those who died at the World Trade Center. Powerhouse African-born painter Watts has long been on the art scene — now 49, he was a Basquiat protégé — but he has been rediscovered in the last decade and featured in major shows at the Whitney and at Gagosian. These artists' works "touch my spirit," says Simmons, who says he has pieces by both in his collection.
Simmons says he came to Miami "to cultivate people for my Palm Beach event," referring to a March 15 benefit for Rush. It was held last year at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago. "There's some poverty in Palm Beach," Simmons says. "But not at Donald Trump's." —Alexandra Peers