Serpentine Galleries Chief Quits, With Harsh Words for Activist Artists

LONDON — The chief executive of the Serpentine Galleries, Yana Peel, resigned on Tuesday after a newspaper investigation revealed she had connections to a cybersecurity firm whose technology has been used to target journalists and human rights activists.

“In light of a concerted lobbying campaign against my husband’s recent investment, I have taken the decision to step down as C.E.O.,” Ms. Peel said in an emailed statement. “I am saddened to find myself in this position,” she added.

The Serpentine Galleries is one of London’s most popular art museums, and has recently presented exhibitions by Marina Abramovic and Christo. It has also championed artists who have faced persecution such as Ai Weiwei.

In an interview with the Times of London in 2017, Ms. Peel said she wanted the Serpentine to be “a safe space for unsafe ideas.” In 2018, she was a judge for the Freedom of Expression awards presented by Index on Censorship, a British nonprofit.

On Friday, The Guardian newspaper reported that Ms. Peel owns one-third of Novalpina Capital, a private equity firm co-founded by her husband, Stephen Peel. In March, funds controlled by Novalpina bought a controlling stake in NSO Group, an Israeli company offering technology, developed by former intelligence operatives, that can hack phones to gain access to encrypted communications.

The technology is used by governments to fight crime and terrorism, but has also been used to target journalists and activists. Mexico used NSO products to track at least two dozen journalists, government critics and international observers, according to a New York Times investigation and research by Citizen Lab, part of the University of Toronto.

A lawsuit filed last year in Israel charged that Saudi Arabia had used NSO technology to target Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. NSO denies this and says it does not tolerate misuse of its products.

On Friday, Novalpina said in a news release that it was developing guidelines “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.”

Ms. Peel told The Guardian that criticism of NSO was “misinformed,” and that she had “no involvement in the operations or decisions of Novalpina, which is managed by my husband, Stephen Peel, and his partners.”

On Monday, the German artist Hito Steyerl, whose work was presented in a solo exhibition at the Serpentine this year, said in an email that she had withdrawn a digital artwork from the Serpentine’s website in response to the reports.

“I am very happy that the Serpentine Galleries set a strong precedent by reacting quickly thus living up to their stated ethical values,” Ms. Steyerl added in an email on Tuesday after Ms. Peel’s resignation. “I think it’s a valuable example for art institutions worldwide.”

Ms. Peel’s quick decision to resign is in contrast to similar events at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. For months, artists and activists have called for the resignation or removal of Warren B. Kanders, a board member who is also the chief executive of a company that produces tear gas that protesters say was used on migrants at the Mexican border. Mr. Kanders said that the firm, Safariland, played no role in deciding how its products are used, and that he was staying put.

Activists in Britain have been more successful in asserting pressure on arts organizations. Last year, artists including Shepard Fairey removed work from the Design Museum in London after it rented its atrium to Leonardo, one of the world’s largest aerospace and defense companies, for a drinks reception. BAE Systems also withdrew its sponsorship from an arts festival, the Great Exhibition of the North, after several musicians pulled out because of the defense contractor’s involvement.

James Bridle, a digital artist who has shown work at the Serpentine, said in an email on Tuesday that it was significant that the Serpentine chief executive’s resignation “turns on Ms. Peel’s alleged ownership of a cyberweapons company, at a time when many are coming to recognize these products for what they are: weapons.”

This is not the first time the Serpentine has found itself faced with troubling ethical questions. Earlier this year, the museum was one of many in Europe and America that cut ties with the Sackler family, generous arts donors whose members include the owners of a pharmaceuticals company linked to the opioid crisis in the United States.

The Serpentine had “no further funding applications” with the Sackler Trust, a spokeswoman said in March, but the museum’s second space is still named the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.

In her resignation statement, Ms. Peel hit out at artists and others who led crusades against museums. “The world of art is about free expression,” she said. “But it is not about bullying and intimidation.”

“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,” she added. “That will be a great loss for everyone.”

Alex Marshall is a European culture reporter, based in London. @alexmarshall81

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