Interview with Valeria Napoleone by Augusta Atla for CHART ART FAIR 2020, August 2020.
My interest lies in supporting female artists at the moment in their career when nobody’s looking
Valeria Napoleone is based in London and is part art collector, part art patron. Valeria has been collecting artworks by female artists for two decades and boasts a collection of over 400 works by women.In 2015, Valeria launched Valeria NapoleoneXX, an umbrella platform for projects working towards increasing the recognition of art practices by female artists through collaborations with contemporary art institutions.
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: For you, what is ‘a gallery’?
VN: A gallery’s mission is to take on an artist and support their practice, and to be willing to devote itself to a long-term journey with the artist. The practice of an artist lasts a lifetime; a gallerist needs to be there for that lifetime. I also see a gallery’s role as a service to collectors (and beyond), educating its audience about artists’ practices, providing guidance to collectors on how to create a collection, and information about the artists represented. In my case, it often happens to me that galleries I am close to—those in my art ecosystem—tell me: “Valeria, go and look at these artists, I think they are interesting,” even though the artists are not anyone they work with. I trust these galleries very much because over the years they have given me so many interesting and fantastic tips about artists that they weren’t representing. A gallery is a community, a family. And collectors become part of this family.
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: What are the annual art fairs that you look forward to going to every year?
VN: For me, it’s Art Basel (Basel), Liste (Basel), MiArt (Milan), and Frieze (London).
AA: Gender representation at Nordic art fairs in 2019: 70.5% men, 29.5% women.
Do you think that a one-off, all-female fair theme for the duration of three days can change the general daily habits of the art scene? And make an impact on the thinking of those galleries taking part (in terms of balancing their representation of artists at future fairs)? Can CHART’s all-female initiative this year engender real change?
VN: I think that a single gesture, one-off initiative cannot change the whole system. But a gesture can certainly rouse attention and stir a conversation. It can make a strong impact and shed light on specific issues that need to be addressed. No matter what happens, I think these three days at CHART can be very powerful. They will open up discussions on a problem that exists. For the galleries participating it can be an exercise: an exercise in supporting those female artists whom they already represent, but whom they perhaps don’t support enough. The change won’t be palpable from one day to the next, but here will be a shift in attitude hopefully.
AA: Many people have criticised this year’s all-women theme at CHART for discriminating against men. What are your views on this? Is CHART approaching things the wrong way?
VN: When you reveal the plan to make a 100% female artists programme, this can kindle another discussion: one about discrimination. After centuries of women artists being side-lined and neglected, a one-off art fair puts all the male artists, who have enjoyed mainstream and unrestricted support, at risk of becoming extinct? I mean, that’s laughable. This all-female programme is NOT a permanent trajectory for CHART every year. It is a specific moment in history, and people should welcome it and say: ”Wow! Something new and something necessary!” They should embrace it.
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: While art academies now have more female students than male, the ratio vis-à-vis gallery representation is completely the opposite. Consequently, many women artists work outside the gallery system. Collectors like yourself are engaging in non-profit and artist-led spaces where many women exhibit (such as Studio Voltaire). Is this creating a market?
VN: I support programmes like Studio Voltaire and non-profit organisations that give platforms to artists who are overlooked, even totally dismissed, or not yet discovered. Studio Voltaire is very special. Artist-run spaces like Studio Voltaire give total freedom to artists to express themselves beyond the commercial reality. I support programmes like Studio Voltaire because this is where the next generation of great artists will come from. We need to support artists, we need to give them an opportunity when nobody’s encouraging them. This is what Studio Voltaire is about: courage, taking risks, and giving opportunities at pivotal moments in artists’ careers. Over the years, I have bought work from Studio Voltaire shows, some incredible pieces from artists who are now very prominent and who were given their first big chance there.
AA: Do spaces like Studio Voltaire go to art fairs? Do they participate in art fairs?
VN: Absolutely yes. At art fairs, there are sections for non-profit galleries. Studio Voltaire presents work in these sections together with a conglomerate of different non-profit spaces from New York and London and beyond, called Allied Editions. Spaces like the Whitechapel Gallery, Chisenhale, Calder Arts Centre, Serpentine, and a few others sell their limited editions and raise quite substantial amounts of money, which is necessary to support their programmes. CHART ought to have a non-profit section or a limited edition section, as they have at Art Basel. This is also a great way to support courageous experimental programmes that give such important opportunities to new artists and certainly have a keen attitude towards women artists and non-binary individuals.
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 be recognised in the end. 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: Do you think that other art fairs will follow?
VN: A few years back, another art fair was considering dedicating a one-off edition of the fair exclusively to female artists, exactly like CHART, but it didn’t happen. I think it could be good enough, and powerful, if at least all the galleries participating at a fair committed to a 50/50 gender balance criteria. Or if the art fair imposed that criteria on all the galleries.
AA: What do you find exciting in terms of the future of your own collection?
VN: The opportunity to feed it and develop it over the next decades, to enter into partnerships with the right institutions, and eventually to share the collection with a wider audience. The vision of making it stronger and stronger and of having a voice of its own.
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.
AA: What is the future of the art market?
VN: I am more interested in the future of art-making, artists, and institutions. The market is not really my priority.
// AUGUSTA ATLA
Augusta Atla is a visual and conceptual artist, furthermore a passionate art critic and writer on discrimination and gender issues in the current contemporary art scene. Augusta Atla has been exhibiting extensively in Europe since 2006, her artworks are featured both in Danish museum collections and in major private collections, including NEON/Dimitris Daskalopoulou (GR), Montana Furniture (DK), and Collezione Viafarini/Ferrari (IT). Having lived abroad for 13 years (in London, Rome, Venice, Athens, and Paris), Augusta is knowledgeable on the contemporary European art scene.