Serpentine Galleries Director Yana Peel Resigns, Blaming ‘Toxic’ Allegations About Her Links to a Cyberweapons Company

Yana Peel says that reports about financial links to a cyberweapons company buyout are inaccurate.

Yana Peel attends the Huishan Zhang front row during London Fashion Week September 2018 at the Royal Academy of Arts on September 17, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

The director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, Yana Peel, has resigned following media reports alleging a link between her and her husband and a controversial Israeli cyberweapons company.

In a statement to the press, Peel explains that her highly unusual decision to step down is a result of “a concerted lobbying campaign” regarding a recent management buyout of the Israeli company supported by a private equity firm co-founded by her husband, Stephen Peel. 

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,” Peel writes, adding that the attacks are based on “inaccurate media reports now subject to legal complaints.”

Peel’s resignation brings an end to a 15-year involvement with the Serpentine, which she has led as director for the past three years, working hand-in-glove with its artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist. Peel, who is a philanthropist and entrepreneur, had previously been a member of the gallery’s board, and before that was involved in its capital campaign. When she was appointed CEO by her fellow trustees, who include New York’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg, he praised not only her arts background, but also her experience in business.

The relationship between Peel and the Israeli NSO Group is complex and indirect. Novalpina Capital LLC, a private equity firm co-founded by her husband Stephen Peel, supported a management buyout of NSO Group on February 14, according to a statement on Novalpina’s website, but is not an owner of the NSO Group. According to the SEC filings for Novalpina, 75 percent or more of Novalpina Capital LLC is owned by an entity called Novalpina Capital Group S.à.r.l., in which Yana Peel is a beneficial owner of at least a 25 percent stake. (“Beneficial ownership” does not mean that Yana Peel actually owns the equity; the term “beneficial ownership” includes, for example, any equity owned by an individual’s spouse or other family members. Peel’s representatives have stated that she does not have any involvement in the operations and investment decisions of Novalpina.)

Peel’s abrupt resignation comes at a time when arts patrons, along with museum trustees, are facing unprecedented scrutiny over the source of their wealth or their family’s wealth.

At the press preview for an exhibition of her work at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in April, artist Hito Steyerl spoke out against the Sackler family, whose members have been embroiled in a series of lawsuits over their role in the opioid crisis and whose name appears on the facade of one of the Serpentine’s buildings. Steyerl told the New York Times that she had withdrawn a digital artwork from the Serpentine’s website in response to the recent reports about Peel.

“I am very happy that the Serpentine Galleries set a strong precedent by reacting quickly thus living up to their stated ethical values,” Steyerl told the newspaper. “I think it’s a valuable example for art institutions worldwide.”

In her statement, Peel says she is “saddened” about the position she has been put in and included a parting message to the Serpentine’s artists and supporters. “The world of art is about free expression. But it is not about bullying and intimidation,” she says. “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.”

She continues: “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.”

NSO’s spyware technology, Pegasus, has been linked to attempts to target dissidents, journalists, and critics of governments from Mexico to Saudi Arabia, according to the Financial Times, which described its products as “a trophy weapon in the rivalries that consume the Middle East.”

On Friday, Stephen Peel defended the software created by NSO in a statement, saying that it helps prevent perpetrators of terrorism and serious crime from “going dark” through encrypted communications services like WhatsApp and Signal. “Novalpina is 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,” he said in the statement.

In a statement, the Serpentine’s board announced Peel’s departure with “a mix of gratitude and regret” and praised her for her service. “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 groundbreaking exhibitions, and expanding the Serpentine’s program internationally year over year,” the statement reads.

During her tenure, according to the statement, Peel established a donor program in Asia, expanded the Serpentine’s programming internationally, and oversaw an exhibition program that included projects with artists Arthur Jafa, Rose Wylie, Tomma Abts, and many others. “The arts sector will be poorer without her immeasurable contributions to our cultural lives,” the board writes.

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