Komal Shah, Champion of Female Artists, Works to Raise Their Profiles

ATHERTON, Calif. — Komal Shah said she was one of only three women in her master’s program in computer science at Stanford in the early 1990s but never perceived gender as an obstacle.

Born and raised in Ahmedabad, India, and the first in her extended family to study in the United States, she was intent on proving herself, and she did, rising over the next 15 years to senior positions at Oracle, Netscape and Yahoo.

It was after quitting the male-dominated tech world to give extra support to her young children, and then beginning to collect art seriously in 2014, that her eyes were opened to what she described as vast inequities faced by women artists in market prices, museum acquisitions and overall visibility in the art world.

“I started realizing how the odds were so stacked against women, who were making amazing work and were just not getting their dues because of a lot of societal biases,” said Ms. Shah, 53, at her home in Atherton, Calif., which she shares with her husband, Gaurav Garg, a founding partner of Wing VC, a venture capital firm; their two children, now in college; and a museum-quality collection of painting and sculpture that resounds through the space with vibrant color, form and pattern.

Made predominantly by generations of women working in abstraction, from the mid-20th-century artists Joan Mitchell and Lenore Tawney to the young contemporary painters Firelei Báez and Jadé Fadojutimi, the collection isn’t obviously about gender. Rather, it embodies a feminist perspective through its bold expressiveness.

“I want to make a point with the collection, which is how excellent these artists are — they belong in every single museum,” said Ms. Shah, who in less than a decade has amassed nearly 300 works, about 10 percent of which circulate among institutions at any given time.

Next month, Ms. Shah’s Jaune Quick-to-See Smith painting heads to a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and the collector’s Pacita Abad canvas goes on view at a retrospective at the Walker Art Center. Four years ago, Ms. Shah and Mr. Garg started the conversation series at Stanford “Artists on the Future.”

“If I’m going to throw my resources and my time into this, I want to do something that has a positive impact,” Ms. Shah said. She cited a 2019 investigation showing that only 11 percent of museum acquisitions over the past decade were of works by women artists and a 2022 report, detailed in The Guardian, that found works by women sell for 10 cents on the dollar compared with those by male artists. “It’s literally the lowest in any industry,” she said.

In May, “Making Their Mark: Art by Women in the Shah Garg Collection,” edited by the curators Mark Godfrey and Katy Siegel, will be published by Gregory R. Miller & Company.

“I want the book to serve as a starting point for scholarship about women artists,” said Ms. Shah, who commissioned Mr. Godfrey and Ms. Siegel, as well as six art historians, to write about the themes in her collection, and to pen short essays on the more than 135 women spotlighted in the book. The book also includes 14 artists’ reflections on their peers, including Charles Gaines on Lauren Halsey.

“The structure of the book is nonhierarchical,” said Mr. Godfrey, noting that the market stars Julie Mehretu and Cecily Brown are treated with the same significance as long-overlooked artists, such as Mary Grigoriadis, a founding member of the A.I.R. Gallery, and Virginia Jaramillo, who in 2020 had her first solo museum show, at the Menil Collection in Houston. Now, Pace Gallery is representing Ms. Jaramillo and showing her at Art Basel Hong Kong this week.

The daughter of a textile trader, Ms. Shah traces her affinity for abstraction and craft to growing up with stacks of fabrics and swatches arraying her home. Making her first acquisition in 2011 — a work on paper by the Indian American artist Rina Banerjee — Ms. Shah found her calling after joining Tate Modern’s North American acquisitions committee run by Mr. Godfrey in 2014. Through trips he led, she discovered the work of Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl, Laura Owens and Jacqueline Humphries, innovators in abstraction, and artists she came to know personally and collect.

“Komal was an incredibly quick learner,” said Mr. Godfrey, now an independent curator, of how Ms. Shah dove into researching this core group and the branching networks of influence among artists, known and not. “She’ll go into a studio of an artist who no one else is trying to visit,” he said.

Brendan Dugan, founder of the gallery Karma, finds it striking that Ms. Shah doesn’t work with an adviser. “It’s this very cerebral and very personal experience she has with the artists and the objects,” said Mr. Dugan, who is bringing work by Marley Freeman and Maja Ruznic, both of whom Ms. Shah champions, to Art Basel Hong Kong.

Ms. Shah has invited Cecilia Alemani, curator of the largely female exhibition “The Milk of Dreams” in last year’s Venice Biennale, to develop her own take on the collector’s works for a traveling exhibition in the coming year.

“It’s very refreshing and inspiring when you see her collection and how she’s paying deep attention to not necessarily the masters, but who these artists are looking at — it’s all connected,” said Ms. Alemani, adding that some of the names in Ms. Shah’s collection are a surprise even to her.

Just before the Venice Biennale, Ms. Shah hosted a dinner in New York City honoring the U.S. artists (mostly women) in Ms. Alemani’s exhibition. The collector asked the 20 artists in attendance, including Ms. Sillman, to each speak briefly.

“We passed the mic around to address each other, and the kind of portrait of the people who were present by the end was incredible,” Ms. Sillman said. “Komal has a dedication to really pursuing, articulating and shaping her vision and then genuinely supporting people who fall within those parameters.”

Ms. Shah has long favored big, muscular works, attributes often associated with male artists, whether Joan Semmel’s canvas of her own body expanding into the horizon or Carol Bove’s torqued stainless steel sculpture painted powder pink. More recently, through the mentorship of Ms. Siegel, co-editor of the book, her collecting has expanded to include craft and fiber artists.

“I felt free to go look at decorative works and go beyond what has been traditionally considered fine art,” Ms. Shah said, including ceramics by Toshiko Takaezu and Kathy Butterly, fiber pieces by Olga de Amaral and Kay Sekimachi and the blanket work of Marie Watt.

Emphasizing the importance for collectors of cultivating relationships with and learning from curators, Ms. Shah is also a proponent of “putting in as much mileage as possible,” such as going on studio visits and visiting art fairs, galleries and museums to develop one’s own collecting point of view.

“I have managed hundred-million-dollar businesses, and I know what it takes to grow those businesses,” she said, applying the same level of commitment to her collecting. “I want to see everything. It’s a mission.”

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