The director and chief executive of London’s Serpentine Galleries, Yana Peel, has resigned following revelations of her connections to a cybersecurity firm whose products have been used to target activists and journalists. In a statement announcing her resignation, Peel characterized the recent outcry as “misguided personal attacks on me and my family,” which are “based upon inaccurate media reports now subject to legal complaints.”
Last week, a report by The Guardian revealed Peel’s recently acquired stake in the Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group. According to the report, she holds a one-third stake in her husband Stephen Peel’s private equity firm, Novalpina Capital, which took a majority stake in NSO Group earlier this year. NSO has been accused of providing governments with software intended for fighting terrorism and crime that has instead been used to gain access to activists’ and journalists’ devices and encrypted communications.
Last year, a lawsuit alleged the NSO Group’s Pegasus software had been used by Saudi Arabia against the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. According to a New York Times investigation, NSO software has been used by the United Arab Emirates against a prominent human rights activist, and by the Mexican government to track journalists and investigators after the disappearance of 43 students in 2014, among others.
Peel told The Guardian it was “misinformed” about NSO’s activities, adding:
The Peel family has an investment in Novalpina. I have no involvement in the operations or decisions of Novalpina, which is managed by my husband, Stephen Peel, and his partners. [. . .] Throughout my entire adult life I have campaigned in public and private for free speech and defence of human rights. This is something I feel very strongly about and these values guide decisions in all aspects of my life and work.
Nevertheless, she swiftly decided to resign, saying in a statement on Tuesday:
There is a place for these debates, but they should be constructive, fair and factual—not based upon toxic personal attacks. 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.
Peel has been the Serpentine’s CEO since 2016 and has been involved in the institution in various capacities for 15 years. Her rapid departure is a marked contrast to other debates about the ethical standards to which cultural philanthropists are held, a debate that is still raging at other institutions. The Whitney Museum in New York has seen recurring protests over board chairman Warren B. Kanders, CEO of the military equipment manufacturer Safariland. And the many institutions that have received funds from the Sackler family continue to wrestle with the implications of some of its members’ role in the opioid crisis.