Art Collector Spotlight: Komal Shah On Helping the Great Women Artists Shatter Glass Ceilings |

Art Collector Spotlight: Komal Shah On Helping the Great Women Artists Shatter Glass Ceilings

It was a serendipitous moment in New York that shaped the beginnings of Komal Shah’s art collection. During a visit to the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Shah’s eye was drawn to the works of celebrated American painters Laura Owens and Jacqueline Humphries. “I just could not move away from those works,” she told Observer. “Those works really spoke to me in terms of their enormity. They were making works of abstract expressionism in different ways, but they also had a sense of humor and strength to the work.” It was, she said, a pivotal moment. Shah, a prominent philanthropist and now a burgeoning collector, suddenly had clarity in terms of the visual language she wanted her collection to have. “I think I realized then I must buy these works and I must start learning about these artists.”

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As Shah and her husband, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Gaurav Garg, began to amass their art collection, she quickly began to see the many inequities that female artists encounter in the art world. This should come as no surprise, as Shah is no stranger to breaking glass ceilings. As a student at Stanford in the 1990s, Shah was one of just three women in her master’s program in computer science and went on to hold executive positions in the male-dominated tech world at companies including Yahoo, Netscape and Oracle.

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She readily admits that there’s a similar sort of boys’ network at play in the art world, historically and in the present. The idea that artists are men is, as she puts it, “entrenched in our minds,” but she didn’t let that stop her from seeking out the work of the great women artists who’ve been overlooked. “It became a mission—a fulfilling mission,” Shah said. “I just couldn’t believe that people hadn’t discovered these treasures. And I still see many artists, older artists and younger, who are continuing to not be placed at the same level as their male counterparts.” That lasting inequity is something that has continued to inspire her collecting choices and how she shares her art collection with the world.

The evolution of “Making Their Mark: Art by Women in the Shah Garg Collection”

Shah’s eye for aesthetics was shaped by her upbringing. The daughter of a textile trader, she was raised in Ahmedabad—the textile capital of India that has no shortage of artistry—though Shah’s zeal for fine art grew after settling into life in the U.S. “I didn’t grow up around museums in India, but after I came to the U.S., both Gaurav and I would frequently go to museums, and we had sort of the shared visual language of abstract expressionism in that our favorites were Kandinsky and Rothko.”

Shah and Garg made their first significant acquisition at Christie’s Asian Art Week sales in 2011. She hadn’t actually registered for the auction and didn’t know how to bid, but when she saw a painting on paper by Rina Banerjee, she knew she had to have it and asked her friend to raise her paddle. The piece she successfully bid on that day—It Rained so She Rained by Rina Banerjee, paddle price $11,875—is one of over 100 artworks featured in “Making Their Mark,” a traveling exhibition showcasing works by female artists in the Shah Garg Foundation collection.

This exhibition, which will next be mounted at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in October of 2024, evolved from the catalogue Making Their Mark: Art by Women in the Shah Garg Collection (2023), which highlights the achievements of female artists from the late 1960s to the present. It was born out of a suggestion by curator and art historian Mark Godfrey, who would serve as one of the book’s editors. “In 2021, he said ‘Why don’t we do a book that celebrates the breadth and the depth of work that women have been making?’—in his mind, the collection was ready for that,” said Shah, who added that at the same time, it became clear that they would need to create a foundation that would galvanize their initiatives.

A brightly lit interior of an art gallery with several artworks displayed on the walls and in the center of the room
“Making Their Mark” (Installation View), 2023. Photograph: By Tom Powel Imaging / Courtesy the Shah Garg Foundation

Formalizing what they were already doing with a foundation enabled Shah and her husband to promote and support women artists in several ways: supporting museum shows, supporting museum acquisitions, highlighting the historical importance of certain works and empowering independent research. Following the publication of the catalogue, Shah turned to High Line Park curator, 2020 Venice Biennale artistic director and “The Milk of Dreams” curator Cecilia Alemani to help the artworks of Faith RinggoldMaria LassnigSimone LeighCandida AlvarezChristina Quarles and others leap from the pages of the book into physical spaces where people could absorb the details of these remarkable works in person. The initial run of the exhibition brought some 50,000 visitors to the former Dia Foundation building in New York. Following its showing in Berkeley, “Making Their Mark” will move to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, in September of 2025.

The exhibition is important, according to Shah, “because it shows the incredible thought leaders these artists are.” As an example of the imbalances female artists have faced, she points to Ukrainian artist Janet Sobel. “She used her son’s supplies to make drip paintings, and she was trying to figure out her voice,” Shah recounts. “Clement Greenberg—the art critic—saw the work, and called it housewives’ trash. Jackson Pollock saw the work and is on the record as saying it made an impression on him. And a few years later, who comes out with drip paintings? Clement Greenberg was Pollock’s biggest supporter.”

Ultimately, Shah is using her art collection to help women in the arts shatter glass ceilings much in the same way she herself broke through them in tech. Her approach in both cases relies heavily on instinct and momentum. “Follow your passion, and things start to happen that make you realize you can break through,” she said. “I followed my heart, and I was going to do this show whether we had five people attend or twenty thousand people attend. You just have to believe and see what happens if you take your chances.”

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