Valeria Napoleone. Photo: Michael Leckie.

Valeria Napoleone is one of Britain’s leading buyers of contemporary art. Working in an art world dominated by male owners and collectors, Napoleone has a distinct aesthetic agenda – she only buys work made by women. Spanning a variety of artistic mediums, she has purchased works from some of the most important artists of the last twenty years, all of them women. When speaking about her collection Napoleone has stated, ‘I collect the artists I collect because they are great artists and the list of women artists that I still want to buy is very long’.

The daughter of a wealthy Italian industrialist, Napoleone studied journalism at New York University and then completed a Masters degree in art gallery administration from The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Following the completion of her studies, Napoleone began to amass her art collection in the early 1990s. It was her first purchase of a small, black and white photograph of abstract bubbles that inspired her to create a collection of work by female artists. Even at that time, Napoleone was well aware of the under representation of women artists in museums and galleries. As a result, she began to use her knowledge and influence to promote and encourage women artists. Her desire to support women artists – regardless of their age, situation or economic status – is not driven by business strategy but because of a genuine dedication to the artists that she works with. Instead of working with an advisor, she aims to build meaningful relationships with the artists she collects.

Napoleone has bought over 200 pieces which she has, for the most part, either displayed in her home or kept in storage. She then rotates these works over time. She now resides in London and her Kensington home contains a vast collection of contemporary masterpieces by pioneering female artists that include Lily Van der Stokker, Goshka Macuga and Guan Xiou. The art pieces that she has bought cover a wide range in mediums, from film to photography to installations. They also elicit a variety of emotional responses – some are aggressive whilst others are laid back, some are delicate and feminine whilst others are macho. Yet, the theme that united each piece is that they have all been produced by women. The wide range of her collection resists the idea of a generalised female aesthetic. Instead, it illustrates the complexity and diversity of female art production, rejecting the stereotypical view of the types of work that women artists produce.

Napoleone established a new initiative in 2016 called Valeria Napoleone XX as part of her work for Studio Voltaire, a contemporary arts organisation. The aim of the project is to equalize the representation of male and female artists in museums and galleries in the US and the UK. The trans-Atlantic programme demonstrates Napoleone’s close infinity to the two art scenes. Though she started her collection in New York, she has made a home for herself in London. In New York, the Valeria Napoleone XX SculptureCenter will sponsor one major commission at the Sculpture Center every twelve to eighteen months. Its first commission was a piece by Anthea Hamilton. The installation piece called Project for Door (After Gaetano Pesce) was recently nominated for a Turner Prize. In London, Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society will donate one significant work of art by a living female artist to a different UK-based institution each year. Museums can apply to the programme for support each year. One institution will be selected to receive the work and the female artist selected will have a solo show at the Camden Arts Centre in London.

Napoleone believes that the art world is still viewed as a ‘boys club’. It is this belief that has helped to inspire her collection and the Valeria Napoleone XX project. In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls exhibited their now iconic poster, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? It described how less than 4% of art works in the Metropolitan’s Modern Art section were by women, whilst 76% of the nudes were female. The group’s work highlights art history’s treatment of women as passive images rather than as active creators. In spite of decades of campaigning, work by women artists only made up 3-5% of major permanent collections in 2015 in the United States and Europe. Susan Fisher Sterling, the director of Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, believes that actively reinserting women into the history of art is vital for the future status of female artists. Museums and galleries can support these artists by placing their work within an historical context. By supporting living female artists and helping artistic institutions to readdress the gender imbalances in their collections, Napoleone is actively working to achieve greater gender equality within the art world.

Some of the personal highlights from Napoleone’s contemporary art collection can currently be seen at Touchstones Rochdale, an art gallery and museum in Greater Manchester, as part of the exhibition Going Public – The Napoleone Collection. Visitors can expect to see a range of art works by renowned contemporary artists that include Mai-Thu Perret, Margherita Menzelli, Tomma Abts, Candice Breitz (who is set to represent South Africa at the 2017 Venice Biennale) and Phyllida Barlow (who will represent Great Britain), among many others.

-Emma Bryning
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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