For 23 years, the London-based art collector Valeria Napoleone has been building up a collection consisting exclusively of works by female artists. This is her way of challenging the gender discrimination in the industry, which accounts for the fact that only 2% of total sales at art auctions between 2008 and 2019 were works by women, and that men are over-represented in museums, galleries and the media. The Danish artist Augusta Atla interviewed Valeria Napoleone as part of their continuing series of conversations, which highlight today’s gender discrimination.
“Excellent quality will hopefully be recognised.
The only problem is that it can take longer for women.”
AA: Who has the power to make a change regarding gender equality in the contemporary art scene?
VN: Museums, curators, and directors of museums have the power to initiate change in the art scene. It’s the duty of museums to educate people about great art and challenge gender imbalance.
If public collections, museums, and institutions start legitimising women artists by acquiring and exhibiting their work in their collections, this proactive stance will trigger something very powerful for the future. If the museums take on the responsibility of showcasing and invigorating critical analysis and discourse vis-à-vis the practice of female artists, everyone will follow. The programming, panel discussions, and seminars in museums will fuel critical and analytical discourse on the practice of female artists, many of whom have been silenced and erased from art history.
AA: You started collecting in the early 1990s to redress the gender imbalance. Art fairs often represent 70-75% works by male artists. How do you use the art fair, then?
VN: I am not a ‘fair collector’, which means that I do not build my collection by going from one fair to the next. I work 365 days a year on my collection, on research, and on discussing the works. When I arrive at an art fair, most of the time I already know what’s on offer, as many do nowadays, since gallerists send previews and offers in advance. For me, an art fair is more about connecting with people I do not normally see, and about researching. I know which artists I want to include in my collection, and the list of them evolves over time and takes a lot of thought on my part. Over the past 10 years, as the number of art fairs has escalated to thousands each year, too many galleries, going from one fair to the next, constantly ask artists to produce work for fairs with criteria that accommodates the market—work that sells. I strongly resist building a collection of works bought mainly at art fairs. My acquisitions at fairs only happen when I know the artist and the gallerists well. Otherwise, with new discoveries, I take time to think and research. It can take months before I make a decision.
AA: How do you build up your collection?
VN: I am an art collector, not an art buyer. As a collector and a patron, I am deeply involved with the artists, gallerists, and curators. My work and journey of the past 23 years have been built on trust and respect, and relationships. It is this incredible support that gives me access to the artists to whom I want to gain access, and to the best work to which I want to gain access. I am a very curious, adventurous, and entrepreneurial collector. My interest lies in supporting female artists at the moment in their career when nobody’s looking. I am interested in the moment of an artist’s life when I know my support will make a huge difference, an impact. As a collector, I aim to continue to build a collection that grows stronger and stronger over the years, knowing very well that a great collection is built over decades with commitment, passion, and focus. I do not sell works from my collection.
AA: Have you encountered any discrimination against your collection?
VN: When people come to visit my collection and say, “Valeria, don’t you think that you’re discriminating against men by not including them?” I say: “Well, you know what, it’s my collection, it’s my vision, it’s about great art and great artists. Period.” Some collectors focus on a specific medium or media, on specific geographic areas, on South America, on Europe, and so on. I focus on the work of female artists. I have certainly received many comments from visitors to my collection, such as” “These works do not look like they were done by women.” What do you answer to that!?
AA: At art fairs, do you avoid galleries with a strong male bias, or could you buy work by the few women artists they represent?
VN: I don’t avoid galleries that have no women. But if they have no women, I don’t have any business with them. I can look at artworks by male artists, as I am interested in great art, but they will not be for my collection. I do not need to own it to appreciate it. There are some galleries I’m very close to because they have a unique vision, great taste, incredible programmes. I have a few fantastic gallerists that have been a key part of my journey. However, I’m very adventurous and proactive in finding new artists and new galleries, and in establishing new relationships. Art fairs are useful for that, for meeting and engaging with new people.
AA: Sweden, for example, has introduced a gender-based quota when buying works for their collections. Likewise, the Copenhagen City Council’s collection has a 50/50 gender quota. Do you think this policy should be applied more widely? Do you think it works?
VN: Yes, it’s a good idea, absolutely. I think that we should apply a 50/50 gender quota, not just because we need to recruit women simply because they’re women, but because there really is so much quality work out there by female artists. So many generations have been overlooked that we can easily reach the 50-50 quota. This is a job that needs to go back centuries to balance the deficit, so definitely. I want to add that regarding public collections, it is very important to have a 50/50 quota because public institutions are there to address the population and provide a service for the country.
AA: Do you, sometimes, buy works directly from the artist?
VN: Yes, I do buy directly from the artist. Many artists I know went from having a gallery to years of not having one, and then to having a gallery again. Sometimes the gallery closes and then they don’t have one for ages. At the moment, for instance, there are quite a few mid-career artists in my collection whose galleries have closed down. Unfortunately, it has happened to many great galleries in recent years, also galleries that had great programmes and not very commercial ones. It’s such a loss. I know that these great artists will soon find the right gallery. Excellence will hopefully be recognised. It is just that for women, it may take longer.
AA: As an art collector, are you a very independent spirit who determines for yourself what, to you, is good art?
VN: By definition, a private collector is someone who buys to suit their own taste, not an institution that has to tick the boxes or has to buy specific artworks because of the gaps in its collection. I don’t need anybody’s validation. It’s just my own taste and vision. Private collectors should buy pieces that they love, that they really connect to on a personal level. Not for investment purposes.
AA: Unfortunately, artworks by women are still sold at much lower prices than those of male artists. Regarding the auction houses in New York and London selling the most expensive works, do you think that more women can get into this league? And how? Is this sheer monetary issue important?
VN: It’s something we come face to face with every single day, also at art auctions, especially in the evening auctions. Museums have not only the duty but the power to drive the change. If museums start exhibiting more female artists, from different generations, and give them more opportunities for great shows, the market will follow. The legitimisation of museums and institutions is the key to change. Once the big museums start doing their job properly and add female artists to their programmes, the market will listen and gradually reflect that. We underestimate the power of museums, their curators, and directors in this matter.
AA: Is the art market a mirror of how well museums are doing their job (representing women artists)?
VN: Absolutely. And even if the museums did an excellent job, it would take some time for the market to catch up. But it will happen eventually with the legitimation by institutions. We need to hold museums more accountable for that.
AA: What are your next plans and projects (including your own patronage calendar)?
VN: Moving into our new house and installing the collection in a space that has been conceived in a very thoughtful way to accommodate art. Continuing to conceive new XX Projects, my initiative to support female representation in public institutions.
- Valeria Napoleone lives in London and is both an art collector and an art patron. Valeria has been collecting works by female artists for 20 years and has a collection of over 400 works by women. In 2015, Valeria Napoleone launched ‘XX’ – an umbrella platform for collaborative projects with contemporary art institutions aimed at increasing the recognition of works by female artists.
- Augusta Atla is a Danish visual artist and art critic and has exhibited extensively throughout Europe since 2006. Her works have been purchased by museum collections and major private collections both in Denmark and abroad. See more on augustaatla. com.
- The interview was conducted for Chart Art Fair’s publication, De-centred. The book is available on chartartfair.com. Price: DKK 250.
- The first conversation between Augusta Atla and Valeria Napoleone was published in MAGASINET KUNST in May 2020.