Yana Peel resigns as CEO of Serpentine Galleries after spyware row

Serpentine Pavilion opening overshadowed by resignation of CEO Yana Peel after spyware row

Yana Peel has stepped down as CEO of the Serpentine Galleries on the launch day for this year's pavilion, after she was criticised for her connection to an Israeli cybertech firm.

Peel issued a statement this morning announcing her resignation, following "toxic personal attacks" relating to her involvement with Novalpina Capital Group, the private equity firm co-founded by her husband.

As reported by the Guardian, Novalpina holds a majority stake in Israeli cybertech firm NSO Group Technologies, which has been criticised by human rights group Amnesty International.

"I am saddened to find myself in this position," said Peel, who was a judge for Dezeen Awards 2018.

The work of the Serpentine "cannot be allowed to be undermined by misguided personal attacks on me and my family" she stated.

"I have decided I am better able to continue my work in supporting the arts, the advancement of human rights and freedom of expression by moving away from my current role."

Serpentine board praises Peel's contribution

Peel's announcement comes the day the Serpentine Galleries was set to unveil this year's Serpentine Pavilion, designed by Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. Although a preview event took place today as scheduled, the press conference was postponed until Thursday.

The London gallery issued a statement this morning confirming that it had accepted Peel's resignation "with a mix of gratitude and regret".

Serpentine Pavilion 2019 by Junya Ishigami
Serpentine Galleries postponed the press conference for this year's pavilion, designed by Junya Ishigami, following the news

"Since taking on the role in 2016, Yana has done an exemplary job furthering the mission, visibility, and financial standing of the Serpentine, increasing support and donations, overseeing ground-breaking exhibitions, and expanding the Serpentine’s programme internationally year over year," reads the statement from chairman and board of trustees.

"While we have every confidence in the Serpentine's ability to continue to serve artists, visitors, and supporters in the future, she will be sorely missed," it read.

"The arts sector will be poorer without her immeasurable contributions to our cultural lives."

Row over ownership of cybertech firm

A US Securities and Exchange Commission documents lists Peel as an indirect owner of Novalpina since August 2017, a year into Peel's three-year tenure at the Serpentine.

In this case, indirect ownership means that Peel owns "25 per cent but less than 50 per cent" and is a "control person" at the company.

Novalpina has held a majority stake in NSO Group Technologies since March this year. NSO has been criticised by Amnesty International for providing its Pegasus software to authoritarian regimes including Saudi Arabia.

It is alleged that the spyware software has been used to monitor communications between private individuals.

However Peel described media reporting on the case as incorrect.

"Bullying and intimidation"

"These attacks are based upon inaccurate media reports now subject to legal complaints," she said.

Peel claims the "concerted lobbying campaign" against her will discourage future philanthropy in the arts.

"If campaigns of this type continue, the treasures of the art community – which are so fundamental to our society – risk an erosion of private support. That will be a great loss for everyone," she said.

"The world of art is about free expression. But it is not about bullying and intimidation," she continued.

"I welcome debate and discussion about the realities of life in the digital age. There is a place for these debates, but they should be constructive, fair and factual – not based upon toxic personal attacks."

Serpentine hit by string of controversies

Peel's resignation comes at a torrid time for the Serpentine Galleries, which has been hit by a string of controversies.

Earlier this year, the organisation was forced to act after it emerged that Junya Ishigami took on unpaid interns at his firm. The designer of this year's pavilion – a low-lying craggy slate roof held up by 106 columns – was told to ensure all staff on the project were paid.

Further problems for the gallery emerged in April, when artist Hito Steyerl criticised the gallery's acceptance of funding from the Sackler family at the opening of her show.

Steyerl's show ran in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery,  the Zaha Hadid-designed building funded by and named after the American philanthropist family who made their fortune from Purdue Pharma. The company's OxyContin painkiller is implicated in the ongoing opioid crisis in the US.

"Donations to the Serpentine from the Sackler Trust are historic and we have no future plans to accept funding from the Sacklers," said the Serpentine in a statement at the time.