The boss of the Serpentine Galleries has quit, claiming she was forced out due to “misjudged personal attacks” on her family over her husband’s involvement with a controversial tech firm.
Yana Peel, a vocal human rights advocate, leaves after three years at the helm, claiming her involvement with the institution runs the risk of seeing funding from wealthy donors drying up due to “inaccurate” reports.
She said: “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. I am saddened to find myself in this position.
“These attacks are based upon inaccurate media reports now subject to legal complaints. I have decided I am better able to continue my work in supporting the arts, the advancement of human rights and freedom of expression by moving away from my current role.”
Her decision comes after questions were raised over her husband’s investment in a one billion dollar (£790 million) Israeli tech business NSO, which can be used by governments to hack social media services including WhatsApp.
Stephen Peel bought a majority stake in the company earlier this year via his private equity vehicle, Novalpina. It is the second major purchase by the fund since launching in 2016.
Bosses insist the software, called Pegasus, is used for security purposes, to help prevent terrorist attacks, infiltrate drug cartels and help rescue kidnapped children.
But NGOs and campaigners claim it has been sold to authoritarian regimes, who have used it to spy on citizens – with ongoing court cases claiming the technology has been used to target dissidents.
Critics have accused Mrs Peel of hypocrisy over her husband’s decision to invest in NSO, after the couple have spent years fighting human rights abuses as free speech advocates.
She has a small, single digit stake in Novalpina but a spokesman said she has no involvement in operations or investment decisions.
The former Serpentine boss appeared to accept there are some criticisms of NSO, but said any discussions must be “constructive”.
She said: “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.”
Her husband’s business is attempting to get to grips with the criticism of NSO and last week bosses at the tech firm revealed a “governance framework” to ensure its software’s lawful use.
Novalpina also said it will announce a new framework for the firm which will be a “new benchmark transparency and respect for human rights”, and fully align with the UN’s guiding principles.
Although the exact details of the framework remain unknown, Novalpina said it will “in future aim to disclose all information of relevance and importance unless it is expressly prohibited in law” from doing so.
The Serpentine said: “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.”