‘In some of the bubbles there was a face or the body of a woman trapped inside’: Valeria Napoleone on finding a connection with an artist’s practice

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Over the past three decades the Italian born, New York- and London-based collector and patron Valeria Napoleone has built up a collection of around 500 works devoted to female artists from the 1970s to the present. In June 2015, she launched Valeria Napoleone XX—the name is a nod both to the female chromosome and also the fact that she is a twin. It is an umbrella platform that promotes the representation of female artists in major public institutions. The platform’s collaboration with the Contemporary Art Society is an ongoing commitment to buy and donate a significant work by a living female artist to a different UK museum each year; while she also underwrites the production of a major commission every 12-18 months at SculptureCenter, a New York non-profit institution dedicated to sculpture. Napoleone has attended every Frieze art fair since its first edition in 2003.

The Art Newspaper: What are you looking out for at Frieze this year?

Valeria Napoleone: I’m not really a fair collector, but I love art fairs and especially Frieze, because Frieze for me is going home. I’m looking forward to visiting Hollybush Gardens and Greengrassi as well. I will focus on London galleries because I haven’t been here in a while. Also Kate MacGarry, and Alison Jacques because I think she’s really building an incredible programme with women artists and their estates.

How quickly do you decide to buy a work of art?

I am a very slow burner. I have many criteria that are attached to the choice of a work of art. First of all, I need to love the work but then I need to understand the concept and the whole practice of an artist. It’s a long conversation: even if I like it right at the beginning, I need to have the validation of my research and it may take years. Then sometimes I really love the artist and super-connect to the practice, but the body of work that gets me excited is not there yet, so I need to wait. This happened to me with Frances Stark; suddenly this body of work in Los Angeles with Marc Foxx opened up the whole thing, and I thought: it’s totally me. Then I also went back to buy the previous work.

What was the first work you ever bought?

It was a photograph by an American photographer called Carol Shadford. She’s not well known at all. I paid $500 and I bought it in New York in 1997. She was doing these incredible photographs of soap bubbles in black and white. From afar you could see just this abstract image. Then, when you approached, you could see that in some of the bubbles there was a face or the body of a woman trapped inside.

What was the last work you bought?

A piece from the 1980s by Californian artist Jennifer Bolande from Magenta Plains Gallery. It’s a very conceptual piece but also a beautiful object.

What do you regret not buying when you had the chance?

There are so many that got away. One was a big dog sculpture by Cosima von Bonin that was exhibited at Documenta; I don’t remember which year. Giant stuffed dogs, enormous, beautiful, and the pedigree was there—I didn’t get it.

If you could have any work from any museum in the world, what would it be?

One of Cady Noland’s installations of the 1980s.

Where do you like to eat and drink in London?

In my home! I love to cook and I love good food—and I love to entertain. Then I can gather everybody and I can catch up.

What’s your least favourite thing about art fairs?

The frenzy, and the pressure to make a decision in a few seconds. What I especially don’t like is that too many artists are asked to do work just for the fair. I don’t want to buy that.

Where do you go in London to get away from it all?

Notting Hill. It’s my favourite area. I love to walk around the shops and cafes there because there still is a sense of community and not so many big brands. It still retains this authenticity.

What tip would you give to someone visiting London for the first time?

Put your shoes on and walk around throughout central London. During the pandemic I started from Kensington, Knightsbridge, Mayfair, Belgravia, and I went to Notting Hill and back. Walk around the neighbourhoods.

Besides art, what else do you collect?

Issy Miyake’s Pleats Please outfits. Oh, my God, I have such a big collection I think I could have an exhibition of them!

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