Yana Peel plans deeper engagement between London’s Serpentine Galleries and Asia

Yana Peel’s connections to Hong Kong may presage a bigger involvement of the London-based Serpentine Galleries in Asia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 March, 2018, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 3:03pm

“I’m definitely a techno-optimist,” Yana Peel abruptly says. “I’m just incredibly excited about the opportunities that will require us to think in new ways. I’m excited about the possibility of machines and humans across different industries.”

A jarring statement from an art gallery CEO, but an apt one coming from Yana Peel, a well-noted champion of technology and debate.

Aside from her full-time duties at Serpentine Galleries, Peel still heads up Intelligence Squared, Outset Contemporary Art Fund and sits on various boards, including that of Hong Kong’s Para Site.

Famous names from art and beyond peppered the conversation – Hans Ulrich Obrist, Karl Lagerfeld, Michael Bloomberg and the late Zaha Hadid. It was Bloomberg who, as chair of Serpentine’s board, invited Peel to join the Serpentine board many years ago. “My relationship with the Serpentine has spanned 15 years as a supporter and friend. Two years ago, I was invited to the ‘hot’ seat,” Peel beams with pride. And is the seat still hot? “Oh yes, very hot.”

In typical British fashion, we start talking about the weather. “I missed the four seasons. In Hong Kong, you have hot, wet, wet and wet,” laughs Peel, who lives in Bayswater with her husband, Stephen Peel, and their two kids. In a way, the move to London was a homecoming of sorts for Peel.

A daughter of Russian immigrants, Yana Peel comes from a long line of high achievers – or survivors. One of her grandmothers made it through the Siege of Leningrad, while the other became the first female law student in the city. She grew up immersed in Russian culture and studied Russian literature at McGill University in Toronto.

Peel went on to a master’s degree in economics at the London School of Economics, later working for Goldman Sachs in London. It was during this time that Peel got the idea for an organisation that connected artists with patrons at an art charity dinner.

In 2003, she co-founded Outset Contemporary Art Fund and, nine years later, she took helm of Intelligence Squared with Amelie von Wedel.

Outset, Intelligence Squared and Serpentine Galleries may seem like different organisations, but they all connect people, something Peel has always desired. With Outset, it was artists with wealthy collectors; Intelligence Squared, the top minds from different disciplines; and with Serpentine, it’s pretty much everyone in the art ecology, from artists and curators to gallery-goers and patrons.

What differentiates the three is legacy. Peel built Outset and Intelligence Squared from the ground up, while Serpentine Galleries is a 48-year-old art institute located in one of the most storied parts of London.

“For me, for Hans [Hans Ulricht Obrist, the gallery’s artistic director], we see it as a two-year start up. As we step into our 50th year, it’s really about looking at what the next 50 years would look at. We never get nostalgic, we never look back,” says Peel. “For us, it’s about bootstrapping our way into a new model, in a technological reality.”

Soon after taking on the top job, Peel appointed Ben Vickers, a Google alum, to the new post of chief technology officer at the gallery. Vickers is a techno-enthusiast eager to see technology deployed in socialist ways to solve problems of unemployment and resource scarcity.

Peel also put together an innovation circle comprising leading figures from institutions such as MIT to discuss the future.

“One time, we had a 12-hour marathon on artificial intelligence, which helped us to look at the future of work, machine learning and the future of creativity,” Peel says. “We are very keen to expand our audience beyond the million and a half people who visit the Serpentine. The future is made with fragments of the past.

“It also means we can approach the season with the kinds of partnerships that help us go further than we can ourselves.” Serpentine is launching its Spring season with exhibitions by Ian Cheng and Sondra Perry, running from early March to end of May.

Peel opines about topics less associated with art curators and more with venture capitalists, particularly through her continued involvement in Intelligence Squared. Subjects such as The Singularity, robotics and employment, and photography in the era of a trillion photos online all animate her. “I think creativity is one of those last domains that should prove itself resilient against machine learning,” she says. Whether that statement is one of defiance or optimism is hard to say.

Peel’s optimism, and drive, have also been instrumental in securing financing for Serpentine in the face of continued public funding cuts to art institutions. The gallery currently receives 14 per cent of its operating costs from Arts Council England, with the rest coming from its long list of corporate and private donors. Peel is looking to make that list longer still.

I think creativity is one of those last domains that should prove itself resilient against machine learning
Yana Peel

And like many European galleries of late, Peel is looking to Asia for support. In May, the gallery will partner with Hongkong Land to launch an architecture pavilion in Beijing. Every year, Serpentine commissions a pavilion from a leading architect to showcase leading thought in the profession. Past commissions include Herzog & de Meuron, Jean Nouvel, Oscar Niemeyer, Daniel Libeskind and Dame Zaha Hadid. The Beijing pavilion will be designed by Liu Jiakun and remain open until August 2018. “It’s the first of its kind, anywhere outside of Kensington Gardens,” beams Peel.

The Serpentine Galleries, despite its prestigious donor list and legacy, can be quite bold in its works, in part because there is no collection on hand. For the team, that means “hunting down the next idea, project or event,” according to Peel. “This year, we filled the pavilion with recipes for resilience in the city, where we championed stories of success, and turned it into a hub for community groups,” Peel says.

Yet, it’s hard not to view community art champion by Serpentine and other art institutions with certain scepticism. Art in an age of growing income inequality and a host of other global issues, can seem a bit quaint. But for Peel, it is only a sign that the discussion needs to go on.

“Personally, I think it’s a great time to put the voice of the artist at the centre of the conversation, especially regarding the biggest issues of the day.”

But how much can all the high-minded conversations that academics, curators and artists are having in Kensington Gardens translate to reality? Peel gives a smile before tapping on her phone to show me the motion for the next Intelligence Squared debate: Art is for Pleasure, not Politics.

Set to take place during the next Art Basel in Hong Kong, the motion will be moderated by Michael Govern. So far, only Olafur Eliasson, the Icelandic-Danish artist, has been confirmed as one of the speakers.

“Olafur, like Mark Bradford and Theaster Gates, have done great work for civic society.”

With that, Peel the globetrotter is off, dodging the question.

This article appears in the March issue of The Peak magazine, available at selected bookstores and by invitation