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Serpentine Gallery. Photo: Alexander Baxevanis.

Serpentine Galleries Chief Executive Officer Yana Peel Resigns Amid Controversy

Yana Peel, the chief executive officer of the Serpentine Galleries in London, stepped down on Tuesday, days after The Guardian reported that her husband’s investment company, Novalpina Capital, purchased a controlling stake in an Israeli cybersecurity firm whose software has been used by governments to track dissidents.

“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,” Peel said in a statement. “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.”

Stephen Peel owns one third of Novalpina Capital, which he cofounded in 2016. According to an announcement on the company’s website, the equity firm “completed the acquisition of a majority stake” in the NSO Group on March 18. “NSO develops technology that provides government intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the critically important capabilities to lawfully collect data or sometimes legally intercept communications of individuals suspected of terrorism or organized crime,” the webpage reads. It also acknowledges the “ongoing debate about the use and implementation of lawful interception technology” and declares that Novalina is “committed to creating an example in the lawful interception and TMT sector, that all others can admire and aspire to emulate.”

Yana Peel has contested the initial Guardian report, written by Jon Swaine and Stephanie Kirchgaessner and headlined “UK Rights Advocate Co-Owns Firm Whose Spyware Is ‘Used to Target Dissidents.’” According to Schillings International LLP, Yana Peel is an indirect owner of the company; she does not co-own or control the NSO Group and has no involvement in the operations of the NSO Group.

According to the New York Times, the Montreal-based Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz, a friend of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group that claims the company helped the Saudi government gain access to Khashoggi’s smartphone and monitor his communications with its spyware, known as Pegasus. Amnesty International has also accused the NSO Group of targeting other Saudi dissidents. One of its members reported receiving a suspicious WhatsApp message with content related to Saudi Arabia. Following an investigation, the human rights group believes that this message as well as others received by activists were clickbait that were designed to deploy mobile spyware.

After learning of Peel’s indirect ownership of the company, artist Hito Steyerl withdrew an artwork from the galleries’ webpage. “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 New York Times in an email after Peel tendered her resignation. “I think it’s a valuable example for art institutions worldwide.”

In response to Peel’s decision to depart, the Serpentine Galleries’ board of trustees said: “It is with a mix of gratitude and regret that the board of trustees of the Serpentine Galleries has accepted the resignation of CEO Yana Peel. 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 program internationally year over year.”

It continued: “Yana leaves the Serpentine Galleries deeply grounded in its mission to provide both established and emerging artists with a dynamic platform to showcase their work, and well-positioned to thrive. 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. The arts sector will be poorer without her immeasurable contributions to our cultural lives.”

Earlier this year, the Serpentine Galleries also faced backlash over its ties to members of the Sackler family associated with the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin and has largely been blamed for sparking the opioid crisis in the United States. In March, a spokesperson for the institution said that it had “no further funding applications” from the Sackler Trust.

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