As museums across the globe aim to tell more inclusive histories, there is one collection that quietly propels the narrative forward: that of the married couple Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg. An early abstraction from their holdings that was on display in Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York this year shined a light on a rarely seen part of the artist’s oeuvre, and an untitled late-era Joan Mitchell work from the Shah Garg Collection played an important role in a 2021 retrospective for the Abstract Expressionist at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Shah and Garg started collecting in 2011, after acquiring a Rina Banerjee work on paper, and have significantly expanded their collection since, adding works by Faith Ringgold, Maria Lassnig, Simone Leigh, Candida Alvarez, Julie Mehretu, Christina Quarles, and many other women artists. Highlights from their holdings appear in Making Their Mark: Art by Women in the Shah Garg Collection, a new book edited by curators Mark Godfrey and Katy Siegel that spotlights certain works and augments them with essays on lesbian feminist artists, the relationship between craft and abstraction, and the pitfalls of women-only exhibitions.
ARTnews spoke with Shah, a trustee of SFMOMA and a member of the chairman’s council and acquisitions committee for the Studio Museum in Harlem, to discuss the book as well as plans to show her collection in an exhibition organized by Cecilia Alemani and the Shah Garg Foundation, first in November in New York, and later, at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and the Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis.
ARTnews: Unlike many books about collections, yours is an art historical resource, with thorough essays engaging themes that go beyond the collection. Was that your intention?
Komal Shah: We really wanted it to be about scholarship on women’s work. For the essays, we wanted to cast a net wider than the collection. We asked the writers to include works that they thought would tell the story appropriately, and they incorporated images from museums and other collections. We wanted the essays to be about pure research—the collection would only provide a framework. I was very insistent that it not be a vanity project. The artists are all from the collection, in order to keep a sense of cohesiveness. But there were gaps that we filled to tell a story that represented our times.
ARTnews: In what way did you fill such gaps?
Shah: I’ll give you an example: Katy Siegel and I have known each other for a long time and bonded over the artist Carrie Moyer years ago, when no one was really looking into her work. Katy and I had been having this conversation on women’s work and trajectories. One was [Abstract Expressionist painter] Janet Sobel, whose work I was offered when I didn’t know enough about her. As I started researching Sobel, I realized that [critic] Clement Greenberg had not exactly been kind to her: he called her a “housewife,” in some ways effectively sealing her career.
Critics who set the criteria on what’s considered fine art have had their bias toward what women make. Craft and fiber art were recognized instead as decorative art. One of the trajectories we embarked on was figuring out a textile and fiber collection. That collection is not fully fleshed out, but there are some very important artists who are in it, like Lenore Tawney, Trude Guermonprez, and Kay Sekimachi. It’s a part of the collection that will continue to grow.
ARTnews: Do you view your collection as a kind of art historical research?
Shah: Absolutely. I also have the freedom to follow the history and trust my gut. I don’t need to have a whole collection-and-acquisitions committee sit down and decide if something makes sense to acquire or not. I am lucky to have a great panel of curators who can give me advice and who I can access easily. It’s worked out well.
I also think that some dealers have become advisers, in a sense. Janet Sobel was actually brought to me by an art dealer. [Gallerist] Andrew Kreps called me and said, “I’ve been reading your book—have you looked at this artist?” For some discoveries, I can follow my instinct and heart more easily, perhaps, than museums can.
ARTnews: Are you constructing a different kind of art history than the traditional lineage laid out by Western institutions, maybe one that focuses on internationalism and interchanges between networks of women artists?
Shah: As much as I consider the US my home, I am looking around at the world. Abstraction isn’t necessarily the domain of Western traditions. Think about the Middle East—abstraction has been alive and well there. In South Asia, there are many sources of abstraction. Some critics made Abstract Expressionism a very branded, powerful movement, but abstraction had its roots way long before that.
The networking part actually came out of the fact that I would go to openings and see groups of artists that would hang together. I got interested in looking at their work just by hearing their names. Mary Heilmann, for example, was a huge influence on Laura Owens. Rachel Harrison I got to know through Jacqueline Humphries. I also started looking at historical networks as well. I had the luxury of having two great curators, Gary Garrels and Mark Godfrey, who would literally draw me charts of influences. Tracing historical roots has been quite important to the collection. I want to say we have at least 50 artists who are over the age of 75. That, to me, is really important to celebrate.
ARTnews: Making Their Mark captures social interchange between artists by featuring one artist writing about another. How did you select which artists to pair?
Shah: I heard about how Jack Whitten would always go see any show of Elizabeth Murray. It got me thinking that women haven’t been making work in isolation or a vacuum. I wanted to make sure that we showed influences and conversations. For example, Kevin Beasley has written poetry about Lynda Benglis. I didn’t quite know the depth of his affection for Lynda’s work until we asked him to write about it. Charles Gaines was so excited to write about Lauren Halsey—she was a student of his. Mary Weatherford wrote about Joan Mitchell. Helen Marten wrote about Laura Owens, and Laura Owens wrote about Mary Heilmann. That shows the intergenerational influences.
ARTnews: Some of the artists in your collection are older, with artistic ties that predate the postwar era. Have you ever thought of reaching back further to earlier years?
Shah: It’s an area I don’t know enough [about]and certainly want to start looking at more actively. Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, and Lee Bontecou are artists I deeply admire but are not in the collection. The simple reason is that, as a collector, I have to prioritize funds. Some of these artists have now gotten to the point where works cost a substantial amount of money. Every time I want to acquire a Lee Bontecou, I wonder about whether that money would be better spent supporting artists who are alive. It’s a trade-off I have not fully resolved. At our [book] launch party, there were artists in their 70s and 80s: Joan Semmel, Mary Grigoriadis, Kay WalkingStick. These women want to be recognized.
ARTnews: How important is internationalism to you now?
Shah: Transnational stories are important to me, being an immigrant myself. One of the artists I am looking at is Tomie Ohtake. Her work stopped me in my tracks at Galeria Nara Roesler’s booth [at Art Basel]. She was a Japanese woman who decided to escape marriage and move to Brazil. And, of course, the work is really special.
ARTnews: Cecilia Alemani, who organized the 2022 Venice Biennale, is currently working on an exhibition of your collection. How did that come together?
Shah: Cecilia and I have known each other for a while. When she became curator of the Venice Biennale, she asked me to host a dinner for the artists in the US. We had 19 artists attend. Then, when we started engaging with press on the book, the first question we got was: “How are you going to make the collection accessible?” That drove home the idea that we needed to show it, and the first person I decided to ask was Cecilia. I was nervous because her Biennale was hugely successful, but we had such a strong overlap between her artist list and what we collected that I felt like there was a meeting of minds and hearts. I worked up the courage to ask her, and before I could even finish the sentence, she said yes. Wow!
ARTnews: What most excites you about the show?
Shah: The collective power. I experiment at home all the time, because we have a lot of visitors. But when people see the collective power of it all and realize that it’s all women around them, it brings out a different reaction. Several collectors who have come to the house have become influenced. A dear friend just bought Joan Snyder.
ARTnews: You have been influenced by two fellow collectors on the ARTnews Top 200 list: Pamela Joyner and Bob Rennie. What about their collecting inspired you?
Shah: I credit Pamela Joyner for inviting me to New York on the fateful day when I met Mark Godfrey [then a curator at Tate Modern] for the first time. That was the beginning of my addiction, as I call it. Looking at work by Jacqueline Humphries and Laura Owens at the  Whitney Biennial was a big moment for me; I had been collecting casually but, suddenly, there was this crazy urge to tell my story. I absolutely adore what Pamela has done. She’s made a sea change in how African American artists are perceived today.
I met Bob Rennie as part of the Tate Americas Foundation, for which I was previously a trustee. One of my conversations with him was around thinking about a collection around women artists and abstraction, and his response was: “That sounds incredible—you should go for it.” When you’re a new collector, it’s so helpful to have mentors. I feel so fortunate to have those kinds of guiding lights in my life.
A version of this article appears in the 2023 ARTnews Top 200 Collectors issue.