Valeria Napoleone in her London flat (© Mariona Otero; all images courtesy Valeria Napoleone and Touchstones Rochdale)

LONDON — When London-based collector Valeria Napoleone started her collection in the mid 1990s, she resolved to acquire only works by women artists. Over the years, the collection has grown at a steady pace, covering a wide range of media, from pottery to video. Notably, Napoleone avoids blue-chip names, supporting artists at the beginning or in the middle of their careers, such as Lily van der Stokker, Ella Kruglyanskaya, and Ida Ekblad. The collector is also known for developing enduring relationships with those artists she supports.

Alongside her attempt to address gender inequality in art, Napoleone is an active patron of a number of arts organizations, including the ever resourceful Studio Voltaire, a nonprofit gallery based in south London. She’s also a member of New York University President’s Global Council and sits on the board of the Institute of Fine Arts in New York City.

Installation view of Going Public – The Napoleone Collection at Touchstones Rochdale

For the first time in almost two decades, key works from Napoleone’s collection are accessible to the public in Going Public – The Napoleone Collection. First shown at Graves Gallery, Sheffield last year, the traveling exhibition features pieces by the likes of Monica Bonvicini, Tomma Abts,  Shirin Neshat, and Mai-Thu Perret. In December, the show moved to Touchstones Rochdale, in Greater Manchester, where it is still currently installed.

I met with Napoleone to talk about her collection, gender equality in art, and the meaning of going public.

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Francesco Dama: Let’s start with Going Public. Why did you decide to work on the project, and why now?

Valeria Napoleone: Private collections going public is a very sensitive subject. Collectors have always been loaning to institutions, but what is very different at the moment is the context. Quite a few incredible exhibition spaces are now closing due to cuts in public funding. So there is a sense of emergency and a need for creativity. It’s not just about loaning; it’s about collaboration.

What I’ve been doing at Sheffield and Rochdale came very spontaneously, like everything in my life. Both cities have communities that are quite deprived of contemporary art. They are not exposed to it, and I think it’s absurd. Art is not just for the art lovers; it can be appreciated at many different levels. So when [the museums] initially approached me with the idea of showing my collection, I instinctively said “yes.” That was the beginning of a lot of work and discussions. 

Installation view of Going Public – The Napoleone Collection at Touchstones Rochdale

FD: Did you work with the curators at the museums?

VN: Yes, we worked together, but the final decisions were mine. I selected the pieces, and we curated them in the space, with minor changes in the display between the two exhibitions. Touchstones Rochdale is much bigger, so we could accommodate bigger works. It was fascinating to curate pieces that I know well — that are part of my collection — outside the domesticity of my place.

FD: So the collector becomes the curator?

VN: Yes, you do the extra step because you want to make an impact. And you want to maximize this impact. When I started the selection process, looking at my inventory, thinking about the communities in Sheffield and then Rochdale, I didn’t want to alienate anybody. I wanted to open doors to contemporary art and to be connected with them, stirring conversations. So I selected works that could engage rather than put them off. Nothing too conceptual, nothing too dry. I selected works that reflect the way I collect, considering the span of time of my collection. I included pieces I bought in 1997 and some I acquired in the past three years, starting with Monica Bonvicini’s video “Hausfrau Swinging.”

FD: Your activity in the art world could be described as an effort to address gender inequality. However, I sometimes feel puzzled by some art events or exhibitions that promote themselves as supporting gender equality in art. I sometimes have the feeling that the artworks on display have been selected only because of the gender of their makers, rather than their quality. It’s like curators want to tick all the boxes of political correctness.

VN: These days museums and curators are not immune to being seduced by the market and trends. It is often that they do not take risks or follow their own visions. Women artists have been left behind for so long that to catch up and have prominent presence in museums takes visionary and courageous individuals, who are rare. Most often incredible women artists are represented not by the so-called “blue-chip” galleries, but by younger or mid-career gallerists who have a tough journey ahead and lots of work to do. They not only have to navigate the gender inequality and bias, but also market-driven choices on behalf of curators.

Visitors to Going Public – The Napoleone Collection at Touchstones Rochdale

FD: How do you address this disparity? Can you give me a concrete example?

VN: As you know, I sit on the board of the Institute of Fine Arts in New York. In October of last year we relaunched the Great Hall Exhibitions, adding a special focus on the practice of women artists. What’s different from other, similar programs is that ours is based on two exhibitions a year only. This allows time to build up context around the show. The committee selects the artist, the students of the institute curate the exhibition and create work around the program: screenings, talks, discussions, performances.

FD: As with any cultural process, this will take time …

VN: Absolutely. It’s not going to happen in a generation. We have to navigate it carefully and give the right message. It’ll take time, but it’s also very exciting. We can be catalysts; we can inspire people to look in new directions.

Going Public – The Napoleone Collection continues at Touchstones Rochdale (The Esplanade, Rochdale, UK) through March 11.

Francesco Dama is a freelance art writer based in Rome, Italy. He regularly writes for several print and online publications, and wastes most of his time on Instagram.