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Cultural Catalysts

Carolyne Zinko | September 27, 2018 | Story Profiles

In the foyer of her Peninsula villa on an 80-degree afternoon, veteran tech executive Komal Shah confronts a visitor with ice, but not the kind that melts in heat.

It’s a 9-foot-tall abstract artwork of an iceberg—”ICE 11,” an ink and screen print on Fiberglas by Lorna Simpson, a leading black artist of her generation whose work centers around being black and female.

With pieces of magazine text collaged on its surface, the work is not easy to understand—and less pretty once you know its meaning. “To ice someone is to put them in prison,” Shah explains. “The issues we have around gender and race are a fire or a volcano ready to erupt. Locking people up creates icebergs of detachment.”

The canvas is here because Komal and her husband, venture capitalist Gaurav Garg, are activist collectors who focus on women and artists of color.

But their ambitions go beyond the living room. On Nov. 12, the couple’s Shah-Garg Conversation Series debuts at Stanford, where it’s slated to bring nationally renowned female artists and artists of color for quarterly discussions with thought leaders on issues of race, female representation and anything in between.

First up is Simpson, who, in 1990, was the first African-American woman to show at the Venice Biennale. Second on the roster is Dana Schutz, whose “Open Casket” painting of a black boy who was lynched in 1955 ignited controversy when it was exhibited in 2017.

The series is the latest sign of a seismic cultural shift. Although Silicon Valley’s reputation is built on the art of coding, its left-brain innovators are turning to right-brain activities to bring major change to the region—from social justice to social activities—by funding the arts.

That the couple picked Stanford for their series is no accident. The university has radically bolstered the arts in recent years, thanks in part to a $6.2 billion fundraising initiative launched in 2006. The money helped open Bing Concert Hall in 2013; the Anderson Collection, a modern art museum showcasing the collection of Harry “Hunk” and Mary Margaret “Moo” Anderson, in 2014; and the McMurtry Building for Art and Art History, named for venture capital pioneer Burt McMurtry and his wife, Deedee, in 2015.

Shah and Garg are riding that momentum. “Our mission is to shine a light on artists traditionally underrepresented,” she says firmly, in what friends know is a typical no-nonsense demeanor, over a vibrant cup of chai made with her mother’s recipe from India. “This will give women artists more than a chance to showcase their work, but also a chance to talk about their work and the feminist response to the issues in the art world today. I believe in balance and co-existence, but you need to tilt the equilibrium in favor of women to gain the balance.”

The usually low-profile couple (except on gala nights, when Shah is a stunner in billowing Oscar de la Renta ballgowns that somehow don’t overwhelm her 5-foot-4 frame) are rising figures in the international art scene as regular figures at Art Basel in Switzerland, Frieze Art Fair in New York, the Venice Biennale and the FOG Design+Art Fair in San Francisco.

They’re active at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where Shah is a newly minted trustee (sitting alongside stock mogul Charles Schwab, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and five dozen others).

They’re patrons of the Stanford’s Cantor Center for the Arts, where Shah is working to enliven the 2019 Rodin By Moonlight Gala and bring in new donors. She sits on Stanford’s Arts Advisory Council and is a member of the board of the Tate Americas Foundation.

The couple’s travels have exposed them to people and ideas far removed from the apps and algorithms of the Silicon Valley scene. This has only reinforced their belief that there is a void on the Peninsula that needs to be filled. As people who are comfortable taking control, they want to fix it—and fast.

“People in San Francisco are more attuned to what’s going on in the art world than people on the Peninsula,” Garg says, with perhaps a hint of frustration. “We felt that [the series] would be a good way to help right that balance. Look at one couple—with the Anderson Collection—and what a difference it made. There are so many people with an interest and means. We need more of them to participate.”

Of the gift, Stanford officials could not be more pleased. (The couple declined to reveal the extent of the sponsorship.)

“When Komal suggested it, I was thrilled,” says Harry Elam, the university’s vice president for the arts, “and we have worked with Komal to refine and define this innovative conversation series. This series will show how the arts can impact how we think about, imagine and understand the future.” Although there are numerous speaker forums on campus (feminist artist Judy Chicago was interviewed by Marci Kwon, an assistant professor of art, before 800 guests at Bing Hall in April), there are none that engage the audience the way Shah and Garg envision.

“In this world that has become so much more interactive, an audience is more interested in give and take in conversation than just the presentation of information,” says Susan Dackerman, director of the Cantor museum, which logs 250,000 visitors a year. “It’s a new take on artist talks.” Shah has known the challenges for women in science since she was a child. She’s had to face them herself.

When she was 12 and growing up in India, she loved math and programming so much that, after school, she taught other students how to code. She went on to earn a master’s degree in engineering from Stanford and another in marketing from UC Berkeley through night school, and worked in product management at Oracle, Netscape, Broadband Office and Yahoo.

Shah knows that women are outnumbered by men in Silicon Valley workplaces and that they’re outnumbered in engineering school too. In her own career, all but one of her supervisors were men. “And, yet, I never felt different or strange,” she says emphatically. “I’d learned to not view gender as being an important part of the conversation and that your merits and abilities were what was important.”

With Garg, Shah had a son, Bijoy, and then a daughter, Ellie. It was only after Ellie turned 7 that Shah realized life in the U.S. was not as equal as she’d thought. Ellie was good in math—three grade levels ahead of her classmates—but insisted she didn’t like it. She was being teased by fellow students for her abilities.

It was an unwelcome development, but one that sparked a personal mission for Shah to combat gender norms.

At home, she encouraged her daughter. Outside its walls, Shah became an activist in women’s causes, from politics to business. But she focused most of her efforts in the field of art. With help from Gary Garrels, a senior curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA, Shah and Garg began exploring what they liked—eventually focusing on abstraction and midcareer female artists and artists of color.

The two have impressed him as quick studies who have built, in only five years, a collection that ranks among the top must-see private collections in the Bay Area, along with Norah and Norman Stone’s art cave in Calistoga, Dick and Ann Kramlich’s media art collection in Napa, and Chara Schreyer’s holdings in San Francisco and Tiburon. (Shah and Garg frequently host museum groups and out-of-town collectors.)

“Once Komal’s interested in an artist, she digs in deeply, researching and reading about the works as much as she can, and meeting the artists whenever possible to understand firsthand the ideas in their work, how their minds work, what inspires their imagination, their processes in how they make the work,” Garrels says. “That’s rare. Most collectors might like to go to an opening or meet an artist at an opening. They’ll dig down one layer, but Komal will dig down as far as you can go.”

The couple’s home in leafy Atherton is a veritable museum, lined with works by Mark Bradford, Mary Weatherford, Laura Owens, Charline von Heyl, Jacqueline Humphries, Lynda Benglis, Phyllida Barlow, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Pat Steir and others. Still more works are on loan to museums or in storage.

Of the artists, most of whom she’s befriended, she says,“they’re vibrant, smart, spunky, powerful and confident. I find it recharging and inspiring to find all these women supporting each other.” She enjoys, for example, dropping in to Simpson’s studio for hours at a time for the inspiration she finds during their chats about whatever the artist is working on or thinking about that day. But Shah has currency for the artists too. Asked to describe Shah in a few words, Simpson offers two: “quietly powerful.”

As evidence that Shah’s push for equity is not just lip service, consider the following. She lectured to women in a one-quarter Stanford engineering series, Fearless, five years ago.

“One of the key takeaways was that these accomplished women were saying, because they’re afraid to raise their hand in class, the professor thinks they don’t know much,” she recalls. “I started joking about how men are confident, but women are competent. I’m surprised this issue persists, even with this intellectual caliber of women who are all doing graduate engineering at Stanford. When they raise hands, the professors don’t pay attention. Men are louder; women are more hesitant. There’s a delayed response; the train’s left the station, and they’re too late.”

Shah joined the local chapter of the Feminist Majority. She’s also a founding board member of the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, an initiative to create equity-fluent leaders to bring change, diversity and inclusion to the workplace.

“She’s been at the frontier,” says Laura Tyson, the business school’s interim dean and a former Clinton administration adviser, referring to Shah’s work in tech from 1997 through 2008. “Komal is both an inspiration and an example of what can be achieved. You need leaders like Komal to accelerate organizations to change. She’s doing this in the world of art.”

Similar praise comes from another art activist, San Francisco philanthropist Pamela Joyner, who with her husband, Fred Giuffrida, collects abstract art by African-Americans.

“Komal is a Silicon Valley prototype in some ways,” says Joyner, chair of the Tate Americas Foundation and a trustee of the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. “That ecosystem has been successful because it has upended pre-existing models. She’s willing to do that to write a new paradigm. That’s not typical. That’s innovative, and I say, ‘Brava.’”

Shah, who stopped working in 2008 to devote more time to her children, notes that Ellie, now 14, still takes advanced math classes and has developed an interest in robotics. Bijoy, 17, is busy outside of school with national go-kart competitions.

Shah may have befriended the artists who created the work on the walls of their home, but her husband has developed a kinship with the canvases themselves while padding around the house. “They’re kind of like your friends,” Garg says. “I will literally go into spaces to just hang with them for a while. Not for hours, but I’ll take a call in a specific room so I can look at things I don’t see every day, just walking from the kitchen to wherever.”

That sort of one-way conversation is nice, but not what Shah has in mind for the masses. She hopes those unfamiliar with art will see how relevant it can be in turbulent times, and that collectors will enjoy learning more about a class of artists who have not been given their full due.

“At the end of the day,” Shah says, “if people leave thinking about it and being provoked into new discussions, to me, that would be a sign of success.”

Originally published in the October issue of Silicon Valley

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