Art collector and patron Valeria Napoleone has been buying work by female artists since the Nineties and zealously helping to raise their profile – a passion reflected in her west London home
For the past two decades, Valeria Napoleone has been an ardent patron of women in the arts. ‘Art history belongs to everyone,’ she asserts. ‘Not just Caucasian males.’ Anybody in doubt of her commitment need only visit her west London flat: cast a cursory glance around her drawing room and you will spy works by Goshka Macuga, Berta Fischer and Lily van der Stokker. These are not shy and retiring pieces. Quite the contrary: they are loud, bombastic, expressive and often irreverent. They announce their presence in an explosion of harlequin colours, gelatinous textures and glistening surfaces.
Valeria, who bears a striking resemblance to a Modiglian figure, albeit one with a penchant for vertiginous platform shoes, grew up in a small town just north of Milan. ‘My parents were besotted with furniture, tapestries and objets d’art; they educated me to be inquisitive in terms of beauty.’ A master’s degree in art administration from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York formalised this curiosity and taught Valeria the mechanics of the art world. But it was the purchase of a photograph by Carol Shadford that set her on the path to building a collection.
It was the early Nineties, and artists like Cindy Sherman, Elizabeth Peyton and the Guerrilla Girls were changing the artistic landscape in New York, yet women were still overwhelmingly under-represented in galleries. ‘I had just bought the piece by Carol when it came to me,’ recalls Valeria. ‘I wanted to redress the gender imbalance and create a collection that focused only on female artists.’
In the years since, she and her husband Gregorio, a banker, have moved to London, started a family and amassed a collection of more than 300 works. Valeria’s approach to collecting is slick and strategic. ‘I set a cap on what I spend on a single artwork; I have a wish list of artists and I plan everything in advance.’ So far, so shrewd, but her reaction to certain pieces is more love-struck teenager than canny investor. ‘My heart beats faster, I get goosebumps, I need to see more, to talk about the work more. It’s a very visceral urge.’ The fact she never sells on and is not looking to make a quick buck gives her licence to entertain these gut reactions.
But she does not stop at buying. She describes herself as 50 per cent collector, 50 per cent patron. She has a personal relationship with the vast majority of the artists whose work she owns. ‘Communicating with the artist is the salt of my life,’ she says. ‘I can understand their intention and gain an extra layer of knowledge.’ The acquisition of work is merely the start of the conversation – a dialogue that has, in some cases, spanned decades.
Valeria is a voracious entertainer and cook. For a party to celebrate Julie Verhoeven’s ICA show in 2014, she painted her face blue and sported a pair of giant strap-on breasts sewn into her dress, a crown fashioned from a loo roll and a rubber glove in homage to Julie’s aesthetic. Valeria’s flat sees a constant stream of curators, gallerists, students and artists through its front door, not to mention the endless events she hosts across London. In 2012, she released a cookbook – Valeria Napoleone’s Catalogue of Exquisite Recipes – but Nigella she is not. One illustration from the book by the artist Linder Sterling features a woman plunging a fork into her eyes.
For the past 12 years she has been an active supporter of Studio Voltaire – the non-profit gallery and artists’ studios in south London, which, like Valeria, places emphasis on supporting emerging artists. But the latest string to her bow is Valeria Napoleone XX. The name is a nod to the female chromosome and the fact that she is a twin (her sister Stefania Pramma is an accessories designer). The initiative, which came about in collaboration with the Contemporary Art Society, will see Valeria donating a significant work by a living female artist to a different museum in the UK each year. In the US, she will finance a major installation by a woman artist at New York’s Sculpture Center every 12 to 18 months. The first beneficiary of this project was Anthea Hamilton, who has subsequently been nominated for this year’s Turner Prize for the piece Valeria Napoleone XX funded at the Sculpture Centre.
It is notable that such positive discrimination is required in 2016, but the discrepancies are starkly obvious – not one of the 20 most expensive works sold at auction last year was by a woman. The hefty $44.4 million achieved by a Georgia O’Keeffe in 2014 still holds the record for the priciest painting by a female artist and yet it falls monumentally short of the $179 million made by Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger last year. Such a chasm makes Valeria’s role all the more important.
Nonetheless, she is keen to point out that, within the nebulous ecosystem of the art world, she tends to steer clear of the art market. Her drive to support female artists is by no means a business strategy – it comes from a fierce desire not to overlook great talent.
Next year, Valeria and her family will move into a seven-floor newbuild, also in Kensington, designed with her collection in mind. Pae White is making a neon ceiling light and Jessi Reaves is creating a wall installation. Equally enticing will be the opportunity to display swathes of the collection currently in storage; what is on show at the moment is merely the tip of the iceberg.
But what do her children – Federico, 16, and twins Gregorio and Letizia, 12 – make of their visually cacophonous surroundings? ‘They love it,’ says Valeria. ‘The beauty of kids growing up around contemporary art is the elasticity of their brains. They’re endlessly curious and ask questions in a way that adults don’t. They look at these artists and they see that they’ve created their own destiny. That’s the big lesson I’ve learned. You have to find your own way in life.’
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