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Serpentine chief quits amid controversy over cybersecurity company

Yana peel serpentine radio crop
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The head of the Serpentine Gallery has unexpectedly quit following allegations made about her financial interests in a controversial Israeli cybersecurity company

The Hyde Park gallery’s board of trustees said today it was with a mix of ‘gratitude and regret’ that it had accepted the resignation of its CEO, Yana Peel.

The shock announcement comes on the same day the gallery was scheduled to unveil its annual architectural pavilion to the press. The official press view of this year’s structure, designed by Junya Ishigami, was cancelled yesterday at short notice.

Earlier this week, The Guardian revealed that Peel has holdings in NSO Group, a $1bn (£790 million) Israeli tech firm, according to corporate records in the USA and Luxembourg.

The company’s technology has been criticised by human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

According to The Guardian, the NSO Group was taken over earlier this year by Novalpina Capital, a London-based private equity firm co-founded by Peel’s husband, Stephen. Yana Peel is also listed as one of the ‘Indirect Owners’ of Novalpina Capital.

Peel defended her stake in NSO and described criticism of the company as ’misinformed’. She told the newspaper she had ’no involvement in the operations or decisions of Novalpina, which is managed by my husband, Stephen Peel, and his partners.’

However today she announced she was stepping down from her role, ’in light of a concerted lobbying campaign against my husband’s recent investment’.

She said: ’The work of the Serpentine – and its incomparable artistic director – cannot be allowed to be undermined by misguided personal attacks on me and my family.

’The world of art is about free expression. But it is not about bullying and intimidation. 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.’

In a statement, the gallery said the arts sector ’will be poorer without her immeasurable contributions to our cultural lives’.

It added: ’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.’

In May, Amnesty International said it was backing legal action to demand the revoke of the NSO Group’s export licence, citing alleged abuses stemming from the vendor’s technology.

It claimed an invasive piece of NSO Group software called Pegasus had been linked to attacks on activists and journalists in Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates.

However in a statement last week Novalpina said it was developing a new governance framework at NSO which will bring the group in ‘full alignment’ with UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

It said NSO’s highly targeted interception technologies protect the public from terrorism and serious crime, without undermining the right to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression.

Stephen Peel said at the time: ‘Novalpina and NSO are committed to do whatever necessary to ensure NSO’s technology is used only for its intended lawful purpose – the prevention of harm to our fundamental human rights to life, liberty and security from acts of terrorism and serious crime.’

Yana Peel replaced former Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones in 2016.

Peyton-Jones, who had been the gallery’s chief since 1991, set up its annual pavilion programme in 2000 introducing a wave of international architects to the UK. She also oversaw the opening of a gallery designed by Zaha Hadid Architects in 2013 and a year later she won the AJ100 Contribution to the Profession award.

Yana Peel’s full statement

 In light of a concerted lobbying campaign against my husband’s recent investment, I have taken the decision to step down as CEO of the Serpentine Galleries. I am saddened to find myself in this position. I have dedicated the majority of my professional life to public service in the cultural sector. I am proud of all that has been achieved for art and artists in my roles as co-founder of Outset, Chair of Para Site Art Space and supporter of many arts institutions in London. 

The work of the Serpentine – and its incomparable artistic director – cannot be allowed to be undermined by misguided personal attacks on me and my family. These attacks are based upon inaccurate media reports now subject to legal complaints. 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. 

I have committed 15 years to the Serpentine – as Council member, capital campaign founder, board member, and most recently in my last three years as CEO. During that time, we attracted corporate and private support at unprecedented levels, structured a management team that has set a new industry standard, and significantly increased audience size and diversity, all of which delivered a strong and sustainable financial position for the galleries. With the support of an incredibly loyal group of donors, sponsors and collaborators, and our brilliant Chairman, I am confident the Serpentine has never had a brighter future. 

A word for the wonderful community of artist and supporters, with whom I will continue to engage. The world of art is about free expression. But it is not about bullying and intimidation. 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. 

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. 

Yana Peel 

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