There are just hours to go until the Serpentine Gallery opens its doors for its annual summer party. It’s the power gathering of the season, the most glittering event of the social calendar, bringing together money, the art world and celebrity. Free invites are highly prized, otherwise it is £500 for a ticket — and everyone wants to be on the list.
This year’s pavilion, a slate roof suspended on a forest of supports created by Japanese architect Junya Ishigami, is ready, and the Whispering Angel rosé has arrived, along with steamed buns by BAO. Grammy award-winning producer Mura Masa is doing a DJ set, as are Years and Years and guests are expected to include Alexa Chung and Grayson Perry. But there’s one missing person — the host. Just 10 days ago, the Serpentine’s chief executive Yana Peel stepped down after she was criticised for her connection to an Israeli cybertech firm, saying she felt the subject of “toxic, personal attacks”. It is a blow for the museum whose international reputation Peel has cemented.
“No, Yana and her husband will not be attending the party,” a spokeswoman for the Serpentine told the Evening Standard. Peel’s name has been removed from the starry list of hosts, which includes ex-New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, artistic director of the Serpentine Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and architect Sir David Adjaye.
Her absence will give guests at tonight’s star-spangled party plenty to chew over, in between sips of Casamigos cocktails. The chatter will then move to who might replace her, although the speed of her departure has left little time to find a candidate.
It’s a coveted role. Ever since the gallery opened in 1970, it has been a magnet for the great and good of the international art scene. The Serpentine council reads like a who’s who of London’s taste-broking elite, from art dealer Ivor Braka — the man to go to if you’re after a Bacon or a Freud — to Manuela Hauser and Iwan Wirth, husband and wife founders of super-gallery Hauser & Wirth.
But you don’t have to have a connection to the art world to be a member — deep pockets will do fine. So there’s Julia and Hans Rausing, the über-generous Tetra-pak heirs; Robert and Felicity Waley-Cohen, whose son Sam is a Grand National-standard jockey and friend of the princes; even Usha and Lakshmi Mittal, the steel billionaires not otherwise known as pioneers of great art (an interviewer once described the works in his office as “more suited to a middle manager in a bus company than a corporate titan”.)
Both tonight and in the future, Peel will be greatly missed at the Serpentine. Up until now, the 44-year-old former banker has had a supernova career, scaling the peaks of the international modern art scene. The gallery has heaped praise upon her, saying, “The arts sector will be poorer without her immeasurable contributions to our cultural lives.” There is no doubt that she worked tirelessly to promote the Serpentine’s cause, bringing in major sponsors including Google and Rolls-Royce.
“She is brilliant,” says a colleague who worked with her. “In other circumstances, I don’t think Michael Bloomberg [who is chair of the Serpentine’s trustees] would let you go because of a controversial investment.” When Peel was made CEO of the Serpentine in 2016 she called it her “hashtag dream job”.
It is a position arguably nobody would quit unless they had to (Julia Peyton-Jones, her predecessor, stayed for 25 years). “I am actually quite surprised she went so quickly,” says one well-connected art world figure. “Bloomberg is usually so robust that something like this wouldn’t normally bother him.”
The problem arose from an investment made by Peel’s husband, Stephen, in February this year. As the manager of Novalpina Capital Management International, which he owns a stake in, he invested in controversial Israeli tech firm NSO Group, which makes spyware used by the governments of Mexico and Saudi Arabia to monitor the phones of journalists and human rights activists.
It is thought that Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi’s phone had been tracked by Saudi Arabia using NSO spyware before he was murdered in Istanbul last October, though NSO Group stopped selling its equipment to Saudi Arabia after his murder.
Such is the current climate among art galleries that any whiff of scandal, especially when linked to big money, is a trigger for instant action, and predictably, the virtue-signalling began almost immediately. Three days after the connection was revealed, German artist Hito Steyerl, who designed an app called Actual Reality OS for the Serpentine’s website, asked to have her work removed. The next day, Peel resigned.
“The work of the Serpentine… cannot be allowed to be undermined by misguided personal attacks on me and my family,” said Peel. “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. 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.”
Peel’s allies say she is the victim of the current hysteria sweeping art galleries. “It just would never have occurred to her that one of Stephen’s investments might have an impact on her work life,” says a friend.
Earlier this year, the realisation that the Sackler family, one of the biggest donors to the arts, were making millions from sales of OxyContin to addicted middle America, sent galleries into a frenzy of self-examination. The National Portrait Gallery led the moral charge, announcing in March that a £1 million grant from the Sacklers would not proceed “by mutual agreement”, followed two days later by the Tate. Other galleries rushed to distance themselves from the Sacklers, including The Serpentine, which named its second gallery after the family.
Then, last month, the Turner Prize announced it was severing all ties with its main sponsor Stagecoach, after it emerged that Brian Souter, the transport company’s boss, had also poured funding into campaigning against gay rights.
Tonight, the party will go on, and as Peel’s former colleagues gather in the gallery that she played such a pivotal role in shaping, nobody can doubt that she will survive this and come back fighting.