Serpentine CEO Yana Peel Resigns in Cybersecurity Controversy; Cites ‘Misguided Personal Attacks’

Peel’s departure follows a Guardian report which links her to a controversial Israeli technology firm

Yana Peel. Courtesy: Serpentine Galleries, London

Yana Peel. Courtesy: Serpentine Galleries, London

The chief executive officer of the Serpentine Galleries in London, Yana Peel, has resigned. She has held the role for three years. In a statement issued today, Peel cited ‘a concerted lobbying campaign against my husband’s recent investment’ and ‘misguided personal attacks on me and my family. These attacks are based upon inaccurate media reports now subject to legal complaints’.

Peel said that she was ‘saddened to find myself in this position. I have dedicated the majority of my professional life to public service in the cultural sector’. She continued: ‘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 released today, the Serpentine Galleries’s board and chairman said that it had accepted Peel’s resignation ‘with a mix of gratitude and regret […] 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.’ 

Yana Peel’s departure follows a report published in The Guardian last Friday 14 June 2019, which links her husband Stephen Peel’s investment company, Novalpina Capital Management International, to the Israeli technology firm NSO Group. Yana Peel is noted on company records as an indirect owner of Novalpina.

A recent statement released by Novalpina says: ‘Funds managed by Novalpina Capital LLP (“Novalpina”), an independent European private equity firm, together with the Founders and management of NSO, completed the acquisition of a majority stake in NSO Group (“NSO”), an Israeli cybersecurity company, on March 18th.’

Yana Peel’s spokesperson Iain Dey, senior director at Smithfield, told frieze that The Guardian report was inaccurate and the subject of a legal challenge. They clarified her connection to NSO Group in a statement sent to frieze: ‘Yana Peel has a small single digit and entirely passive limited partnership interest in a €1bn plus fund, managed by her husband, Stephen Peel, and his partners, that recently acquired a stake in NSO. She has no involvement in operations or investment decisions.’

NSO has been the subject of criticism from human rights groups including Amnesty International, which allege that it has previously provided spyware to authoritarian states. Controversy surrounds the sale of its Pegasus spyware, and subsequent alleged use against activists and journalists in Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates. The allegations predate the Novalpina-managed funds’ acquisition of a majority stake in NSO earlier this year.

On its website, NSO Group maintains that it provides tools ‘that support official authorities to lawfully address the most dangerous issues in today’s world. Governments use our products to prevent terrorism, break up criminal operations, find missing persons, and assist search and rescue teams.’

Last week Novalpina released a statement committing to ‘a new framework’ in order to ‘bring NSO Group in full alignment with UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’, and to set a ‘benchmark for transparency in cybersecurity industry’.

The news of Yana Peel’s departure coincides with the unveiling of the Serpentine’s annual pavilion, designed this year by the Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. The press view for the slate-clad pavilion – described as ‘a refuge for contemplation’ – scheduled for this morning, was cancelled yesterday evening.

Disclaimer: Frieze co-founder Amanda Sharp is a trustee of the Serpentine Galleries.

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