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Why collect only women artists?

27 March 2016

Valeria Napoleone is taking me on a tour of her contemporary art collection in her large ground-floor Kensington apartment. I’m soon struck by the sight of a phrase that is written on one of the walls. It says: ‘100% STUPID’. I ask myself…Am I? Today, perhaps. This is not a piece of interior graffiti, however, but a much cherished work by the celebrated Dutch artist Lily van der Stokker, who has been making these wall-based text pieces for over 20 years. It is far too elegant to be graffiti, with its brightly painted swirls and curls of colour done in a faux naïve style, filled with cutesy cartoon flowers. Napoleone loves this work. Van der Stokker likes to tell us ‘a lot of the things that we would not normally consider part of art language’, Napoleone says by way of explanation, ‘ideas about growing old, about being in debt, feeling happy…or being stupid. It could be self-referential or could refer to the person looking at it. Through this super simple naïve language she asks you to consider many other things.’

100% Stupid

100% Stupid (1991), Lily van der Stokker courtesy the artist and kaufmann repetto, Milan/New York

This work by van der Stokker more widely reflects Napoleone’s art collection, which is filled with artists whose work some might find a little too challenging. In fact, Napoleone has made a name for herself by taking risks with artists. Another witty work by van der Stokker hangs in Napoleone’s bedroom. It reads, with characteristic wonkiness: ‘Cheap artworks easy to understand. We also sell socks!’ In this room Napoleone has hung personally resonant works that remind her of her beginnings as a collector. ‘Seeing them gives me the thrill of those times. When you discover something that will change you for life, you don’t want to forget them. They are my family pictures.’ Such works include early pieces by Ghada Amer, Margherita Manzelli, and Ida Ekblad. ‘Ghada’s piece is one of the first that I bought – it was a very important one for me. Ghada, who has become a close friend, taught me what type of collector I was going to become.’ And that is a collector passionately dedicated to contemporary artists – not just to buying their work, but also getting to know the artists. ‘I collect artists, not objects!’ she says.

In the bedroom hang works by Mika Tajima, Ghada Amer and Lily van der Stokker (left by right)

In the bedroom hang works by Mika Tajima, Ghada Amer and Lily van der Stokker (left by right) Alma Haser

Napoleone is well known for having spent the last 18 years collecting work only by women artists; the walls, floors, and ceilings of her home are packed with examples from several recent generations. This is very much her project, and her husband Gregorio and their three children live with, among – and sometimes under – the results of her passion.

Napoleone’s own family is Italian. She grew up in a town near Varese in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. She acknowledges that she developed an eye for ‘beautiful things’ from her parents, who would regularly buy 15th- and 16th-century Italian objets d’art. ‘They had a friend who designed their house who would take them to auctions in old houses and castles in the region,’ she says. In addition her mother would teach her and her twin sister, accessory designer Stefania Pramma, about the beauty of clothes – something that she has taken to heart. Always fabulously dressed, Napoleone also has a penchant for fashioned baseball caps. ‘We were educated to have our own minds and to have an opinion on things, and to have a sense of taste. Taste is very much acquired I think.’

Saggy Titties (2007) by Nicole Eisenman hangs above a fireplace

Saggy Titties (2007) by Nicole Eisenman hangs above a fireplace Alma Haser

How did she then transform herself into a champion for the new, for all things contemporary? It started, Napoleone tells me, when she was living in New York. After a degree in journalism from New York University, she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology to do a two-year programme in art-gallery administration. While learning about the practicalities and mechanisms of the art world, she realised that she wanted to ‘engage with artists’ but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. Soon she discovered her taste for the contemporary and, in particular, her love of talking to and often befriending artists. ‘I was often going to Williamsburg, which at that time was almost a no man’s land. I frequently visited the gallery Pierogi 2000 and its director, Joe Amrhein, introduced me to a group of artists who were totally unknown. I loved it. I felt that I had discovered this sense of community, this dialogue with artists, curators and gallerists – something that I had not experienced before.’ This experience was something of an epiphany, and Napoleone soon found these new meetings ‘addictive’. ‘Some people get their adrenaline from jumping out of a plane,’ she tells me, ‘but I get mine from conversations with artists. And when I discover new artists I feel the same excitement as someone winning a race.’

The obvious question is why collect only women artists? Much of it is good timing on Napoleone’s part. In New York in the early 1990s, the dominant art conversations were still circulating around the work of grand male conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, and Donald Judd – ‘the guys we were studying at school’. But it was also during a period when women artists like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Liza Lou, and the Guerrilla Girls were transforming the artistic landscape of New York. Clearly Napoleone identified not only with these strong women and their message, but also felt that she could be part of the artistic change that they initiated. ‘I was fascinated by these artists doing things differently,’ she says. I knew about the discriminatory attitude of the art world towards women and I could see that these female artists were doing great things.’

The turning point was Napoleone’s first ‘discovery’ and purchase – a black-and-white photograph of soap bubbles, within which sit the images of different women by the artist Carol Shadford. ‘I found it elegant and engaging. After buying this one work I said to myself that I would create a collection of only women artists.’ She would go on to buy early works by artists including Dana Kane, Ghada Amer, and Liza Lou. Now she owns work by artists who have not only become extremely successful, like Lily van der Stokker and Haegue Yang, but also lesser- known and upcoming artists such as the Chinese artist Guan Xiao, who will soon exhibit at the ICA, London and Modern Art Oxford.

Nina Canell’s Endless Column (Alternating Current for Twelve Electric Fans) (2009) installed behind a table and chairs by Lily van der Stokker Alma Haser

Napoleone’s London flat is hung based on a constant rotation because works are often being lent to exhibitions at home and abroad. ‘It is very organic and keeps us engaged with the work.’ No doubt if you returned in a few months’ time you would experience a different roster, although the van der Stokker desk (she calls it her ‘happy desk’), which sits in a room that Napoleone uses as her ‘office’, is a permanent fixture. If there is something that binds her choice of artists together, it is in their experiments with materials – clear in the selection of works on display in the large sitting room. A black mixed-media painting by the German painter, performance artist and musician Jutta Koether hangs over the fireplace; an abstract sculpture made of sinuous strips of coloured acrylic by Berlin-based Berta Fischer sits next to a larger abstract rectangle work by the young and little-known artist May Hands, whose work includes combinations of polythene, netting, cellophane, shredded papers and packaging. Smaller sculptural works are dotted around the room, including a selection of bronzes by Francis Upritchard and several ‘soft’ sculptures by Julie Verhoeven, who is better known for her fashion illustrations and designs. Napoleone’s purchase of Verhoeven’s sculptures is a good example of her blind faith and risk-taking, as the art world tends to be dismissive of artists who cross over into the fashion world and vice versa.

In the hallway, Kusine (2005) by Nicole Wermers is installed in front of Negative Vibes (2013) by Ella Kruglyanskaya Alma Haser

Displayed in adjoining rooms are a Nicole Wermers sculpture, a Pae White terracotta chandelier, a feisty and heavily impastoed painting by Nicole Eisenman, and, hanging from the ceiling, a vertical column of electric fans – a work by Swedish artist Nina Canell. It is a tough, gritty work. Napoleone doesn’t go in for purely decorative art.

What is most notable about this collection is that Napoleone is clearly not interested in collecting blue-chip names or trophy works. While some artists represented in her collection are now well known, she bought pieces by these artists at the beginning of their careers. ‘My inclination is to look at young artists. That is what I am excited about,’ she says. Does she consider female artists from previous generations? ‘Yes, I am interested in the older women artists but I look back to historic works for research.’ However, that doesn’t include older living artists who might be considered under the radar. Napoleone cites two little-known artists whose work has recently been added to the collection: Claudette Johnson, a Black British figurative artist in her sixties who has been ‘totally ignored’, and the American graphic designer and artist Elaine Lustig Cohen who is now in her eighties.

Part of Napoleone’s selection criteria is determined by her budget; she gives herself a modest cap per year on her acquisitions. And she doesn’t have a crew of advisors or consultants swirling around. Instead she has a group of like-minded passionate gallerists, curators, and artists who keep her in touch with new things. ‘These people are important to me because they are my support. They know that I am dedicated and passionate about what I am doing.’

This passion extends to the kitchen, as you might expect from an Italian. As well as publishing a cookbook in 2012 called Valeria Napoleone’s Catalogue of Exquisite Recipes, which contains family recipes and includes contributions from artists, Napoleone has also made a name for herself as a result of the dinners that she hosts at her home. She loves meeting new people and making new connections and ensuring that her guests do the same over some great food. This bringing together of art and food is at the heart of who she is and what she does. ‘I love to entertain and to have people around. Since I started collecting this has always been a part of it. It is a way of connecting the people that I like – talented artists and creative people that I feel privileged to know. For me, this is half the pleasure of collecting. I would be crippled if I could not support artists. It would be impossible for me to buy things, hang them on the wall and shut the door. I know collectors who don’t want to meet the artists whose work they buy, but for me it is essential. In fact getting to know an artist gives me an understanding of the artists’ work that I didn’t have before. It feeds my mind and my heart to hear the artist talk about their work.’

Napoleone is, however, largely listening to female artists. Is a woman’s eye – in this case her eye as the collector – different from a man’s? Does her eye mean that she is buying different kinds of work to a man? She takes a while to answer this, and then says: ‘Yes. Women have so many different roles to play in their life. They have developed the skill of looking at life from so many perspectives. That feeds a sensitivity that is multilayered. It teaches you not only to multitask but to analyse everything from many angles. For men, it is largely, historically a straight line of work and family.’ And what does this mean for women artists and their work? ‘I think it gives them more freedom,’ she says.

Napoleone’s contemporary art collection sits within the Arts and Crafts architecture of her house. The building was originally designed by the architect Philip Webb between 1868–70 for his friend George Howard, later Earl of Carlisle (a painter who was part of a group of English and Italian artists known as the Etruscan School), and his wife Rosalind: it is one of the few surviving examples of Webb’s domestic buildings in central London. Webb, who is best known for designing William Morris’ glorious Red House in Bexleyheath, and for being one of the founding members of Morris & Co., deftly incorporated both gothic and classical elements into his buildings. It means, for Napoleone, that the rooms have a strong architectural identity of their own, shaped by nooks and crannies, and decorated arches. Hanging larger artworks in the house can be a challenge: ‘The arches and the ceilings dictate what I hang here,’ Napoleone tells me. Next year, however, the family are moving to a larger ‘pure, modern’ house within the borough, with more traditional proportions that will allow her to bring a greater number of artworks out of storage.

A Starling from Bali

A Starling from Bali (2011), Ida Ekblad courtesy Herald Street, London

While Napoleone clearly enjoys the buzz of collecting, an important aspect of her activities is her role as a patron and champion of art and artists. As well as being a long-time supporter of Studio Voltaire, the non-profit gallery and artist studios based in south London, she has recently launched Valeria Napoleone XX (the name is both a reference to the female chromosome but also to collaboration, and a nod to the fact she is a twin). It is a double-sided initiative that will bring the work of female artists to public museums in both England and America. In the UK, Napoleone is working with the Contemporary Art Society (where she is a trustee) to donate one significant work by a living female artist to a different UK-based museum each year. Museums will apply for Valeria Napoleone XX’s support and the selected work will be previewed at the Camden Arts Centre. The work is not a commission, but chosen from an existing body of work. The US side of the venture is quite different – a yearly artist’s commission to be displayed at the SculptureCenter, Long Island, Queens. It seems a place tailor-made for Napoleone’s taste. Founded by Dorothea Denslow as the Clay Club in 1928, this not-for-profit arts institution has a strong reputation for its focus on experimental developments in contemporary sculpture. It has also largely been run by women since its inception. The first commission was awarded to British artist Anthea Hamilton, who created a large-scale sculpture of a man’s buttocks; inspired by a model made by Italian designer Gaetano Pesce in 1972 for a doorway that he had originally intended for a Manhattan skyscraper. Hamilton had long been a fan of Pesce; Napoleone, who is an old friend of the designer, introduced them.

Such an outcome is typical of Napoleone. Her warmth, and enthusiasm for new art must make the  artists who are lucky enough to be drawn into her world feel very happy. The process is not just transactional, but the start of a conversation – and one, I imagine, that continues for life.

From the March issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.

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