When Yana Peel took the reigns at London’s Serpentine Galleries in 2016, she said it was her dream job. Three years later, she is being forced to resign after a public outcry over her dubious business relations.
The former Goldman Sachs banker resigned as chief executive last week right before the opening of the Serpentine Pavilion 2019 but shortly after the publication of a scathing Guardian article that detailed her business affiliations. The article revealed that she owns a third of her husband’s private equity firm, whose largest investment was in an Israeli spyware company, the NSO Group.
The article caused major public outcry against Peel for being tied to a company whose technology has been used by authoritarian regimes to target and silence journalists and activists. German artist Hito Steyerl withdrew an artwork from the gallery on Monday and many called for her resignation.
In a statement, Peel blamed “a concerted lobbying campaign”, which caused several sympathetic responses and praise for her accomplishments but also disbelief.
Nicholas Serota, former director of the Tate and current chairman of Arts Council England, said “the only thing that surprises me somewhat is that someone in the art world could have business interests connected to Israel and not realise that there would be plenty of people looking into that and ready to challenge them.”
Art institutions have been facing increasing public scrutiny over their ties to major donors and sponsors. Earlier in the year, major institutions around the world like the Tate, V&A, and the Serpentine, were shamed for accepting millions from the Sackler family, who is accused of contributing to and profiting from the opioid crisis. The Turner Prize also cut ties with its 2019 sponsor, Stagecoach, after realizing that the company’s boss had personally campaigned against gay rights.
Chinese artist Ai Wei-wei, who is championed by Peel, said that such connections are not unique in the art world. Mrs. Peel, who met her husband at Goldman Sachs in the 90’s, switched to the art world in 2003. Along with her friend Candida Gertler, she set up the Outset Art Fund, which buys contemporary artworks and donates them to public institutions. She got the top job at the Serpentine largely due to her vast and impressive network and fundraising acumen. Michael Bloomberg, the chairman of the gallery and billionaire founder of Bloomberg, said about Peel: “Yana’s contributions to our cultural lives have been immeasurable. She did an exemplary job furthering the mission, visibility and financial standing of the Serpentine.”