Former tech executive Komal Shah acquired her first piece of contemporary art a little over a decade ago, and by 2014, in her telling, “that crazy, obsessive collector was born.” Along with her husband, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Gaurav Garg, she supercharged her acquisitions and catapulted into the top rung of collectors. Now having amassed more than 300 works, Shah recently published a book on their trove, then mounted a traveling exhibition curated by Cecilia Alemani, who served as the artistic director of the 2022 Venice Biennale.
Making Their Mark, on view at the former Dia headquarters in New York through March 23, not only celebrates female artists, who comprise 90 percent of the Shah Garg collection, but goes big by highlighting their monumental works. Pieces by the likes of Mary Weatherford, Simone Leigh, and Firelei Báez command the space; some stretch more than 30 feet across. “There’s often this belief that women make small, pretty work, and I want to prove that scale is not something that women have been shy of,” Shah says. She also hopes to help put female artists on an equal financial footing; Shah cites a well-publicized study that found women artists make just 10 cents on the dollar compared to men. “My take on this is to seduce people, to show them how amazing the work is.”
What have you done recently for the first time?
Embarking on this exhibition: creating a “museum” in the middle of the art district in New York.
What’s the first thing you do in the morning?
I have a cup of chai, which gets me going. I’m very cranky without it.
Drive or be driven?
Drive, definitely. I drive a Porsche 911 Turbo. It’s like a zippy toy car—I’m sure all the Porsche fans will kick me for that. It’s low to the ground, you feel the road, you feel every time you step on the gas. It’s just a very responsive, fabulous car. I’ve been driving a version of the 911 since ’99. And my son now races. Today, he was trying out a GT3. He’s 21 and on a team that’s the precursor to Le Mans Prototype, LMP. He recently became the LMP3 champion.
What advice do you wish you’d followed?
To be much more disciplined. That’s a trait of many successful people. I can procrastinate to the point of never getting back to something.
Who is your guru?
In the art world, I have three. Mark Godfrey, early on when I was not aware of a lot of contemporary art, introduced me to works by Jacqueline Humphries and Laura Owens. On one train from Zurich to Basel, he drew me a whole network of artists, women who were looking up to certain women. I wanted to understand all those chains of influences. Katy Siegel is an advocate for overlooked artists and opened my eyes to the fact that what’s called craft has been adjudicated to not be fine art by male critics. She freed me up to go collect textiles and craft. My third teacher is Gary Garrels. He’s really taught me how to look at a painting. For many years, I literally just followed him at art fairs. He was a walking encyclopedia. He was my greatest teacher—is my greatest teacher.
What have you most recently added to your collection?
The clip is pretty rapid here in terms of acquisitions. But the most recent is a work by Kay WalkingStick, who is now 88 years old. It’s one of her American landscapes. Jaune Quick-to-See Smithand Kay WalkingStick are the doyennes of painting as far as Indigenous artists go. I know both of them well, and I absolutely adore them.
What’s your favorite cocktail?
I don’t have a cocktail—I’m a lightweight. But my favorite Champagne is Billecart-Salmon rosé. When I feel celebratory, that’s what I drink.
Do you have any personal rituals?
Syncing up with Gaurav in the morning. We’ll sit and chitchat. And I’m not very religious, but I have a five-minute prayer that I do every day.
If you could learn a new skill, what would it be?
Pickleball. I have no hand-eye coordination.
What’s the most impressive dish that you cook?
I can create certain Indian recipes like nobody else. One is a lentil soup called dal. It’s comfort food for all of us, even my kids, and they don’t love Indian food that much.
Who do you admire most and why?
I would say Joan Mitchell. On one hand, she’s called a kick-ass woman, rude—incredibly rude. But she also got handed a set of circumstances where the machismo was so in the air and the entire art world was at that point tilted toward de Kooning and these crazy men. She had to create a space for herself. There’s not a dull moment in her entire body of work, from the ’40s until the ’90s. If you’re not doing something against the grain, you’re not achieving much.
What was the last piece of advice that you were given?
It was from my husband, who said, “You don’t have to chase people. They will come to you if there’s something great, so don’t worry about it. Take a breath. And let them come to you.”
Are you wearing a watch?
When was the last time you completely unplugged?
My husband’s birthday. I have lived in the Bay Area, California, for 32 years, but this was the first time he and I flew to the eastern Sierras and just hiked and sat by the water.
What in your wardrobe do you wear most often?
I loved Oscar de la Renta himself and love the new designers in the house. He was the most wonderful person. He had all these stories about going to India in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s my go-to brand along with Dior. Yesterday, [Dior creative director] Maria Grazia Chiuri saw the show. We were thrilled. She’s such a great supporter of women artists herself.
What is your exercise routine? And how often do you do it?
I follow the Happy Body program founded by Jerzy and Aniela Gregorek. I did it for a bit very regularly and then lost momentum—this is the lack of discipline. Jerzy figured out a routine for me that would take under half an hour, and now I get it done every day.
Do you still write letters?
I know I should—I have plenty of note cards—but I don’t.
What kind of music makes you happy?
Janet Jackson, Madonna, Gloria Estefan—my generation.