On Arts Philanthropy: Why Everyone Wants to Be Komal Shah

The time has come to refresh the 'arts philanthropist' stereotype, moving beyond its aristocratic and financier roots—but let's not forget that the new kids on the block have actually spent years honing their giving game.

Komal Shah stands in front of a painting by Elizabeth Murray in her home in Atherton, Calif., on Tuesday, February 26, 2019. Shah is an avid art collector, and she and her husband will be funding a new art lecture series at Stanford University.
Komal Shah in front of a painting by Elizabeth Murray. Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

This February saw the death of Lord Jacob Rothschild, a philanthropist who did much for the arts in his lifetime and had recently spoken out about how disappointed he was to find that today’s wealthiest philanthropists are “not as interested in art as they once were.” His frustration is one shared by many organizations and artists alike who cannot understand why it is such an uphill struggle to convince, say, the Silicon Valley tech community, of the value the arts can have in a society.

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One answer is to acknowledge, and perhaps even embrace, the fact that being involved with the arts can be a lot of fun, highly social and often, very glamorous. Lord Rothschild, for all the work he did for the arts, did not project fun and glamour. Hence the appeal of a new generation of philanthropic role models who are young, glamorous and even a little bit sexy. We’ve entered the era of philanthropists like Komal Shah, who are redefining what it means to support the arts.

For the past year, Komal Shah has been the collector du jour in art world circles. In 2023, the foundation she and her husband run launched a catalogue of their personal art collection titled “Making Their Mark: Art by Women in the Shah Garg Collection.” This was followed in November by an eponymous exhibition in New York, which is set to close at the end of March.

Shah has seemingly struck a chord in the art world. Not only do influential thinkers surround her—the catalogue was edited by curators Mark Godfrey (formerly of Tate Modern) and Katy Siegel (of SFMOMA), and Cecilia Alemani, Artistic Director of the 2022 Venice Biennale, curated the exhibition—but every media outlet from the New York Times to Harper’s Bazaar to the Financial Times has interviewed her and continues to court her to give keynote speeches. We are often asked by prospective clients who want to establish themselves as patrons of the arts, whether they, too, can be like Komal Shah. “What do I have to do? How much do I have to give? Who do I need to collaborate with?”

SEE ALSO: What’s Missing from the Art World? Giving Back

While it might seem superficial to some traditionalists that others would want to mirror Shah’s limelight, we believe there are two important lessons to be learned. First, whatever Shah is doing is encouraging others to take an interest in arts philanthropy, and that’s a good thing. Second, Shah’s rise did not just happen overnight.

It was over twelve years ago that Shah first became a trustee of the Asia Art Museum in San Francisco. Since then, she has gradually developed her giving and collecting, largely out of the public eye. In 2014, she joined the Director’s Circle at SFMoMA and helped fund acquisitions. After a few years, she became a trustee of SFMOMA and also the Tate Americas Foundation. She has provided exhibition support at the Hirshhorn Museum, backed Cecilia Alemani’s main exhibition at the 2022 Venice Biennale, and perhaps most interestingly, created the “Artists on the Future” annual conversation series at Stanford University featuring leading women in the arts like Lorna Simpson, Thelma Golden and Lynda Benglis. The point is that Shah had dedicating herself to the arts long before much of the world took notice—before magazines started asking for interviews, before the ‘Shah Garg Collection’ started to be mentioned on artist’s CVs and before she was included in ArtNews’ list of Top 200 Collectors.

Shah may have flown under the radar for so long because Silicon Valley, where she is based, has long been a blind spot for the art world. But beyond that, what the story shows is that it took over a decade of consistent engagement and dedication for others to see what she was doing and to want to emulate it.

There is a real need today for more positive role models for future philanthropists in the arts. Arguably, any nation that wants to give a real boost to its cultural landscape could do a lot worse than to assemble a council of experienced and dedicated philanthropists and development specialists to implement PR strategies to make arts philanthropy ‘cool’ again. Shah’s journey would be an ideal case study.

But although Lord Rothschild and Komal Shah seem about as far apart as two philanthropic icons can be, they both share important traits: passion, patience and persistence. You don’t simply wake up as Komal Shah; you grow, through years of commitment, into a role that shapes the future of the arts.

On Arts Philanthropy: Why Everyone Wants to Be Komal Shah