Komal Shah: ‘No One Would Ever Describe them as “All Male” Collections’

The 'activist collector' on supporting women artists, museums after COVID-19 and what the art world can learn from Silicon Valley

BY Komal Shah AND Matthew McLean in Frieze Week Magazine | 29 APR 20

Matthew McLean I wanted to start with the current situation and how it might affect collecting.

Komal Shah In the first week of the lockdown, I must confess I was quite affected by fear and a deep anxiety about the well-being of family and friends. There seemed to be this thick haze over the future. After that week, receiving emails from galleries and offers of art that might be available - not unusual in normal times - actually awakened me from my funk. Thinking art really elevated my spirits and got me going again. So, when Loring Randolph asked if I would create a list of my top five pieces across the online edition of Frieze New York, I jumped at the opportunity. It is a joy to engage with the feast of art again.

Matthew McLean A lot of galleries and fairs – including Frieze - are using this moment to really engage with online platforms as a sales tool. What’s your take on the state of the virtual right now?

Komal Shah Nothing can replace the visceral impact of viewing art in person. But I am confident that the online mode is here to stay as a complement. We do need to invest in bringing the online experience closer to the real experience of viewing art. Additionally, crafting narratives. When they are done well, videos can be very helpful to me in that they can weave the story and shed light on the nuances of the artwork. James Cohan gallery has a 4-minute video of Firelei Baez taking us through her show that opened a week before lockdown. It has a visual grandeur, and it really brings the work to life.

Matthew McLean  I’ll look it up. I’m curious if there’s any way your experience in the tech sector gives you a particular insight into the success or failure of the art industry’s use of these platforms.

Komal Shah Based on my professional experience in search and big data, I would say that discovery and search are very important. A great recommendation engine could deepen engagement, and curatorial stories - that cull outstanding artworks and significance themes across galleries – are an important tool for making the fairs navigable. In the ‘back office’, many galleries are starting to warm up to customer relationship management or CRM  to manage information, inventory as well as customer communications, which will help streamline operations. Finally, AR and VR for the art world, while still at an experimental stage right now, will be very useful in the future.

Christina Quarles, Meet in tha Middle, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 1.5 x 1.2m. Courtesy: the artist, Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco and the Komal Shah & Gaurav Garg Collection © Christina Quarles

Matthew McLean You are a Trustee of SFMOMA and closely involved with the Tate and the Hammer, among other institutions. What is your sense of how museums are being affected by the crisis, and how they might respond?

Komal Shah The lockdown has created a lot of anxiety for the museum world. Contributed revenue from e.g. ticket sales is a major source of income for many museums, and that entire stream has vanished for some time. I am excited that many museums have taken up the challenge to bring us ever closer to art with virtual studio visits and art history lessons; at SFMOMA, virtual family art projects have been a huge hit and might prove very useful in cultivating a next generation of art lovers. Before the pandemic, there was already a confluence of changes – younger audiences at museums, acceptance of digital media and a need for more operational efficiency. The lockdown enables museums to pause and reconsider their strategy to best align with the ‘new normal’.  While there may be some turbulence in the short term, I am ever optimistic that museums will again become vibrant places of joy and intellectual stimulation.

Matthew McLean Were you thinking about that when you began ‘Artists on the Future’, the conversation series at Stanford University, e.g. how to connect with young audiences?

Komal Shah  I studied Computer Science at Stanford, and I would find it pretty normal to run into tech world royalty like Sergey Brin or Jerry Yang or John Hennessey on the campus. So, when I was appointed on the Art Council, I wanted the artists who visited to bring a similar 'star power'.  Moreover, I am always looking for ways to connect Silicon Valley and the art world. The tech mindset is quite analytical and to bridge that gap, I realized that we needed to shift the focus from the process of the art to the larger socio-political landscape which art is in dialogue with. Thus, the conversation series, ‘Artists on the Future’ at Stanford. Last year, we brought together world-class artists Lynda Benglis, Dana Schutz and Lorna Simpson in thought exchange with cultural leaders from various fields, like curator Kimberly Drew, Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, and Hamza Walker of LAXART to a five hundred strong audience. Purposefully inviting brilliant artists that happen to be women helps support my personal mission to redress the historical gender imbalance of art; it brings me joy to notice that the younger generation is quite supportive of women artists claiming their rightful place in art history canons. 

Dana Schutz, Umbrella Man, 2017. Oil on canvas, 213 x 198cm. Courtesy: the artist, Petzel Gallery, New York, and the Komal Shah & Gaurav Garg Collection © Dana Schutz 

Matthew McLean Some sections of areas of the art industry have harboured a hope that tech wealth could lead Silicon Valley to become a new cradle of art collecting and patronage. What do you think needs to happen to realize that?

Komal Shah There is actually already a growing collector base in the Bay Area. Some of them choose not to talk about their collections because the valley culture has always been low-key – here you have many billionaires walking around in their flip-flops. That said, there are some in the tech world who feel that supporting art is frivolous compared to causes like development or health. I see that as an opportunity for education, to cultivate a shift in perception. To me, the pursuit of art is not frivolous – it’s as important for our souls as oxygen is for our bodies. Collectors are peer influenced, so eventually, seeing phenomenal art in other collectors’ homes has its own network effect. I am very optimistic that the tech world will overtake even established centres for art collecting over time – remember, it took New York several generations to get to where it is now!

Matthew McLean So, could you tell me about the journey that brought you personally to collecting?

Komal Shah In 2008, I decided to take a break from my work at Yahoo, because of family circumstances. I was already, as a ‘community leader’, fundraising for different causes like women’s shelters and education. Because I’m Indian, I was invited to join the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. But I felt like an odd duck because, as Indian as I am supposed to be - and I did spend the first 21 years of my life there - I really connected a lot more with artists of the world, working with global themes. One day Pamela Joyner, a dear friend, asked me to join her on a Tate trip led by the fantastic curator, Mark Godfrey. Those three days in New York were hugely transformational for me. Illuminated by Mark’s guidance, I fell in love with Jacqueline Humphries’ and Charline von Heyl’s works. I came back excited and nervous with energy. I just had to learn more. And from then on, I was hooked.

Charlene Von Heyl, Nunez, 2017. Acrylic oil and charcoal on linen, 2.1 x 1.29cm.Courtesy: the artist, Petzel Gallery, New York, and the Komal Shah & Gaurav Garg Collection © Charline von Heyl

Matthew McLean How did you develop your collection’s main focus on women artists?

Komal Shah I instinctively fell in love with works by some of the brilliant artists of my generation: Charline von Heyl, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, Jacqueline Humphries and Mary Weatherford. They are each reinventing abstraction with a powerful new visual language and process. Their works form the core of our collection. That they were all women, was a total coincidence. Over time, I was prodded to think about the narrative of our collection: what was unique and meaningful about it? As the analytical part of my mind kicked in, I realized that a lot of my philanthropy has been focused on women. Though in my personal work life I had never felt any different from any man in my work life, after I had stepped away from work I looked at how my daughter was growing up some of the values she was absorbing. I saw how stereotypes were at work here in this country, and beyond, and affecting women’s chances. It is then that I started connecting the dots.

For an example of how this affects women artists, think about someone like Helène Aylon, who just passed away three weeks ago. She had been making truly ground-breaking body of work, feminist in orientation, and very process-based. And it could not be more relevant now. She showed at Betty Parsons in 1979, but then did not have a solo show for 40 years – only recently has she been rediscovered, thanks to the efforts of Gary Garrels and others. Aylon’s career arc is, depressingly, not surprising for a woman. The odds are stacked against most women because of family life balance, perception of male superiority and the historical muffling of women’s voices.

So, our collection is focused on outstanding works by fabulous artists, that have been historically marginalized because of gender - or race. But the foremost criteria for entering the collection is that work be outstanding on their own merit, regardless of race and gender. Charline, say, is in my eyes easily one of the top five painters working in the world today. And this is where there are certain stereotypes and clichés around the framing of an ‘all women collection’ that annoy me. There have been so many legendary, impeccable collections that are pretty much all male artists – and no-one has ever described them as an ‘all male collection’.

Helène Aylon, First Coral, 1970. Acrylic on Plexiglas and aluminum, 123 x 245cm. Courtesy: the Estate of Helène Aylon, Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles and Leslie Tonkonow, New York and the Komal Shah & Gaurav Garg Collection © Estate of Helène Aylon

Matthew McLean Touché. So, how has the collection developed?

Komal Shah Well, once I became immersed in that group of artists, I started looking into their influences - Jennifer Bartlett, Phyllida Barlow, Lynda Benglis, Helen Frankenthaler, Mary Heilman,  Joan Mitchell, Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder, Zarina…. I also started collecting works by peers of my core group Rachel Harrison, Sarah Morris, Dana Schutz and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and upcoming stalwarts Firelei Baez, Kevin Beasley and Jordan Casteel. I adore Mark Bradford’s and Charles Gaines’ work – I mean, who doesn’t? Relationships of influences and friendships between artists are so gratifying to traverse, too.

Did you know, that every time there was an Elizabeth Murray show, Jack Whitten would go see it? Joan Mitchell is a huge influence on at least ten of the artists in our collection.

Matthew McLean In 2018, the Estate of Joan Mitchell passed from Cheim & Read, who had represented the gallery for a couple of decades, to David Zwirner. I wonder: how do you feel about the delayed recognition for certain artists when that takes the form of escalating market value – and everything that goes with that?

Komal Shah It would be so much fairer and more meaningful if these artists could actually enjoy their success in their lifetime, rather than posthumously. Unfortunately, recognition for many women artists either comes late or not at all. I am loving the confidence and articulateness of many younger women artists today. It makes me optimistic for the larger women artist group, that they will not have to wait their entire lives for rightful recognition. But back to the example you cite: I greatly respect David Zwirner and his gallery practice. I think that their support for scholarship around her work and the upcoming retrospective at Baltimore Museum, SFMOMA and other museums will truly solidify her place at the pinnacle of the art world. As far as the passage of an artist from a smaller or mid-sized gallery to a larger and more resource-rich gallery, the art world may need to look at the venture capital model for a more equitable sharing of profits. All investors – whether in the seed stage, series A or B or E, – get to enjoy returns commensurate with the risk and capital or effort invested. With that kind of a harmonious model, there may be freer cross sharing and cultivation of artists across galleries, as opposed to the fear of poaching. And artists should share the rewards of increased valuations too.

Komal Shah and her husband, Gaurav Garg at FOG Design+Art, San Francisco, January 2020. Photo courtesy: Komal Shah

Matthew McLean Okay, so I try to ask every collector these questions – bear with me. What was the first piece you ever acquired? Do you still have it?

Komal Shah A painting on paper by Rina Banerjee: It Rained, So She Rained (2009). I had gone to a Christie’s auction, but had deliberately not registered as I felt that I was too green to start collecting. b However, I fell in love with this work, and asked my friend, Dipti Mathur, to bid for me. I still cherish it very much.

Matthew McLean If there was any piece in the world that you could add to your collection, what would it be?

Komal Shah I would go for Hilma Af Klimt. To be honest, I would buy any painting by her.

Matthew McLean And if you could only live with one piece from your collection, what would it be?

Komal Shah The Joan Mitchell painting from 1992 – it was the last painting she was known to make. The late gallerist-cum-curator Klaus Kertess described it as her ‘hero painting‘: she made it as she knew she was dying. It is a sparkling and expressive work with all of her colours - blue, magenta, yellow, crimson red and many, different shades of white. I’m already worrying about the fact that it will be traveling for her retrospective. I won’t be able to look at it every day: I don’t know what I’m going to do.

Komal Shah is a collector and patron based in Atherton, CA, USA

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.