Meet 6 Powerhouse Women Shaping the Art World
These pioneers are blazing new trails in the art world by using their passion, intelligence, and creativity to spark change
“I see my role as an activist, collector, and philanthropist,” says Komal Shah, a former tech engineer and executive who has made it her mission to celebrate and champion female artists, with a museum-quality collection focused on abstract paintings and sculptures. Shah is also the founder of the Shah Garg Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to amplifying the voices of women artists and artists of color. “Long before there was a collection to speak of, I spent several years observing and learning,” she says. “During that discovery period, it became clearer to me how much the odds were stacked against women. The few major institutional monographic presentations of women artists showed the same few. Group shows appeared to have a quota. It seemed that the art world was happy to maintain the status quo.” In May, Shah and her husband, Gaurav Garg, published Making Their Mark: Art by Women in the Shah Garg Collection, a catalog featuring 136 talents whose work they collect.
“I see my role as an activist, collector, and philanthropist”Komal Shah
Building awareness: “I hope that the more I talk about our efforts to acquire works by women-identifying artists and men of color, the more collectors are influenced to do the same. Producing that market demand not only improves the economics for living artists, but it is also a catalyst for museums,” says Shah, who is on the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Trustees and donors are important stewards of public collections, and their support is crucial to help change public institutions’ legacies.”
Up next: In early November, Cecilia Alemani is curating an exhibition of works from the Shah Garg collection in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood; the program will include educational events, talks, and tours.
Courtney Willis Blair
Few contemporary galleries lie on the same plane as White Cube, the art-world superpower, whose first location, in London’s West End, granted numerous Young British Artists, like Tracey Emin and Gavin Turk, their debut solo shows. Today, White Cube represents the world’s preeminent talents, including Julie Mehretu, Mona Hatoum, and Anselm Kiefer, among others.
This fall, the gallery unveils its first New York location, on the Upper East Side, with Courtney Willis Blair as U.S. senior director, tasked with shaping White Cube’s presence for the next generation of contemporary megastars. “This is an industry that is built on relationships and really being able to be in a community,” says Willis Blair, who was formerly partner and senior director at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, where she broke ground by facilitating major museum acquisitions and bringing on art stars like Jacolby Satterwhite and Gideon Appah. “We’re also opening in Seoul, South Korea, and really thinking about how the different spaces interact with one another and within our geographical region.”
“It’s important that we are aware of the cultural landscape, the political landscape, and the economic landscape”Courtney Willis Blair
Curatorial rigor: “We are in a time where there are some hard questions that we need to ask. It’s important that we are aware of the cultural landscape, the political landscape, and the economic landscape,” says Willis Blair, who is also the founder of Entre Nous, a collective and supper club for Black women art dealers.
Up next: Willis Blair is curating the inaugural show, “Chopped & Screwed,” in the fall, bringing together the likes of Christian Marclay and Ilana Savdie. “The exhibition is looking at how artists are utilizing the same methodologies that you see in music traditions—the framework that artists use of sampling, sourcing, and distorting to create new languages and reimagine power. After that, we will open a solo show with Tracey Emin, followed by Theaster Gates.”
“Community is essentially my medium,” says Michi Jigarjian, the art philanthropist–entrepreneur behind the meticulously curated Rockaway Hotel in Queens, New York, which launched in 2020, and quickly became as much a bucket-list design destination as an anchor of social change. “When I started working on this project, I listened for two and a half years before I stepped my toe into anything, learning what the community actually needs.”
The first commissioned mural, a 16,000-square-foot installation by artist Shantell Martin, transformed a seaside playground across the street into a panoramic splendor viewed from the hotel’s rooftop. “We didn’t just put a mural on the pavement, which is a shared public schoolyard,” explains Jigarjian, who has dedicated her career to creating impact on society through art and is a practicing artist herself. “We realized the pavement itself needed to be redone, so we redid the blacktop. Shantell did programs with schools in the area. It became part of what the kids were excited about, meeting artists in their community.”
This fall, a ten-story projection mural series spearheaded by artist and criminal reform activist Jesse Krimes—the culmination of a months-long community initiative with the St. John’s Residence for Boys, near the hotel—debuts in Far Rockaway. “I think the reason the hotel is a magical place is that there’s already an amazing creative community that lives out there,” she says. “They just hadn’t had a platform.”
“I listened for two and a half years before I stepped my toe into anything, learning what the community actually needs”Michi Jigarjian
Lasting legacy: Jigarjian is also the longtime president of Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York, one of the most hallowed artist-run nonprofit spaces in the city. Founded in 1884, the organization has a famous history as a photography incubator outside of the commercial realm—a mission Jigarjian has carried forward, cementing Baxter St as a critical launchpad for lens-based artists, such as Daniel Ramos and Darryl DeAngelo Terrell, who have September shows there.
Esteemed art historian Isolde Brielmaier is known for supporting artists who think well outside the proverbial box—or, rather, artists who don’t even see the box at all, says Brielmaier, who is deputy director of the New Museum in New York. A former ballet dancer, she traverses different creative genres with aplomb, with previous roles at Westfield World Trade Center, where she produced large-scale public art projects, and the SCAD Museum of Art. She is also guest curator at the International Center of Photography in New York, giving many artists their breakout first museum shows, including Tyler Mitchell, who has since catapulted to art stardom. Joining the New Museum in September 2021, Brielmaier now brings her distinct vision to its curatorial program, which has been defined by its avant-garde, hyper-timely exhibitions since its founding by Marcia Tucker in 1977. “We are committed to consistently questioning norms and standards that have been put in place,” she says.
“I think museums have been called upon and called out in these last several years on a host of levels, and that this is an opportunity to be self-reflective”Isolde Brielmaier
Passion and purpose: “I think museums have been called upon and called out in these last several years on a host of levels, and that this is an opportunity to be self-reflective. What does it mean to be a museum leader in this moment, but also for the future? It’s an exciting moment to be humble, to think about possibility, and to be more inclusive than ever before in terms of bringing people to the table, to problem-solve, to dream and strategize, and to be future-forward together.”
Up next: “We’re excited to present a special exhibition by Judy Chicago, looking at her work over decades, reevaluating her place within our history and her engagement with feminism, as an early pioneer in that space within the arts. We also have the first New York museum show by Puppies Puppies, which will question how racial and trans identities have been flattened and tokenized.”
For Lina Ghotmeh—the celebrated French Lebanese architect who designed the 2023 Serpentine Pavilion in London, titled À Table—her practice is archaeological, unraveling secrets of the past to create a structure anchored in the future. Beyond a remarkable physicality, À Table is a call to collective dialogue around a shared meal—food as an expression of togetherness. A circular table and stools lining the building’s perimeter are an invitation to convene and exchange ideas. “What is architecture other than framing new social interactions with dignity and beauty, providing a place to be together?” she asks.
“What is architecture other than framing new social interactions with dignity and beauty, providing a place to be together?”Lina Ghotmeh
Bio-sourced and low carbon, the nine-sided scalloped timber pavilion in Kensington Gardens embodies Ghotmeh’s long-standing pledge to sustainability. “Like an archaeologist, I usually start from a specific site or physical reality,” says Ghotmeh, whose extraordinary new Hermès workshop, Maroquinerie de Louviers, in Normandy, achieved France’s E4C2’s energy performance rating, the first for an industrial building. “By observing the local resources and materials, the surroundings, and the environment, I make creations that arise in symbiosis with nature, enhancing the memory of the location. Every design we produce at my practice goes through a fascinating journey of deep historical and material research.”
Up next: “The architecture of the contemporary art museum in AI Ula will immerse visitors in a creative journey, interweaving the natural environment, agriculture, and art to reveal the heart of contemporary culture,” says Ghotmeh of her upcoming project in northwest Saudi Arabia. “Through a series of garden pavilions, the museum presents a constant interplay between art and nature, capturing the essence of this unique place.”
Katy Hessel is on a mission to share the story of art—without men. The British art historian, podcast host, and curator recently published her first book, titled exactly that: The Story of Art Without Men (W.W. Norton & Company). Her instant bestseller is a compendium of female artists from the 1500s to today. “I really want to honor these women from history that were consciously written out,” says Hessel, who rose to fame with her popular Instagram account, @thegreatwomenartists, which now boasts more than 350,000 followers. “It is not definitive; it’s just what I’ve learned so far and what I have gravitated toward. My hope is to dismantle the gender imbalance; relinquish all hierarchies between art forms and materials; and to break down the stigma around elitism and art.”
“My hope is to dismantle the gender imbalance; relinquish all hierarchies between art forms and materials; and to break down the stigma around elitism and art”Katy Hessel
Lightbulb moment: It was at an art fair around eight years ago that Hessel had an epiphany. She was meandering through the booths when it dawned on her that she hadn’t seen a single work by a woman artist. “I couldn’t really believe that I hadn’t questioned that kind of inequity in art history,” she recalls. “I couldn’t sleep that night, and I started my Instagram the next day.”
Changing the game: @thegreatwomenartists takes its name from the 1971 essay by Linda Nochlin “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” which examines the institutional boundaries that prevented women from being part of the conversation. After Instagram, Hessel launched a podcast of the same title, inviting contemporary artists like Cecily Brown, Sarah Sze, and Mickalene Thomas to talk about their practice, as well as professors, curators, and writers to discuss the women talents who have made an impact on them. “It’s about who gets to tell the story,” Hessel says. “There is no denying the correlation between the democratization of art and the rise of the internet. Suddenly, people have a voice they never had before.”
A version of this article first appeared in print in our 2023 Fall Issue under the headline “Women Shaping the Art World.” Subscribe to the magazine.