Yana Peel

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This month’s Woman of Influence is CEO of the Serpentine Galleries, Yana Peel, who came to the role after 15 years as a board member, working closely with her predecessor Julia Peyton-Jones and the Artistic Director, Hans Ulrich Obrist.  The Russian-born philanthropist grew up in Toronto and studied Russian literature and humanities at McGill University in Montreal, subsequently moving to London for a postgraduate degree in economics at the LSE. Her transition into the art world  began during her early career as a city trader, when she joined The Serpentine Galleries fundraising council and also became involved in developing new forms of arts patronage.

Prior to her new role at the Serpentine, Peel spent ten years in Hong Kong, where she co-founded Intelligent Squared Asia, the leading forum for live, agenda-setting debates, talks and discussion around the world. Peel’s interest in technology and her advocacy of London’s buzzing creative and cultural heritage is reflected in the strong programme she has led the way in curating at the Serpentine. To celebrate the gallery’s new series of unique interdisciplinary presentations by leading voices in the creative fields, Marguerite hosted a discussion between Peel and fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner to celebrate her current show A Time for New Dreams. We sat down with Peel to discuss the gallery’s latest project ‘Augumented Architecture’ with Google Arts and Culture, the impact of  technology on society - and much more.

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I read in an interview that you describe your role as ‘Chief Eternal Optimist’. Does this relate to all areas of the role?

Of Course! Optimism makes the wheels turn more smoothly, and with such an intense programme at the galleries, it is essential! As Victor Borge said “a smile is the shortest distance between two people.”

The can-do attitude of my closest collaborator, Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist means we can together make the impossible inevitable.

You have been cited for asking the questions: How do we bring Virtual Reality into galleries? How do we bring Augmented Reality into our architecture? – How do you do this with the Serpentine programme?

We continue the spirit of the original E.A.T group of the Sixties, [aka Experiments in Art and Technology] made famous by Billy Kluyver and Robert Rauschenberg. In bringing together artists and engineers with purpose, their mission was to amplify the voice of the artist in contemporary society. And so, with our latest project ‘Augumented Architecture’ with Google Arts and Culture, we extend the reach and role of the architect as well.

Over the past two years, we have also been developing Serpentine Advanced Technologies, the institution’s fastest growing team. This effort has been led by our brilliant colleague Ben Vickers, whom we appointed as CTO when I began here –  a first in any European museum. This effort was supported by our innovation circle and a great team that’s committed to open source thinking.

Our position at the Serpentine is that by not having a historic collection, it means that we are able, and indeed, we must focus on the issues of the future along with what we call ‘the extreme present’, offering artists, architects and designers the tools to go further than they can go by themselves.

In our open landscape for art and innovation, we are striving to address the issues of the billions, not just millions: addressing the vital social topics of the day. For example, in Pierre Huyghe’s commanding show at the Serpentine Galleries, he uses AI to redefine what an exhibition is. Whilst last year, Ian Cheng transformed the Galleries into a virtual animal sanctuary for artificial life-forms, this brought us artwork with a nervous system – and one that woke up at 3 AM one morning much to the park ranger’s horror!

We pride ourselves in always thinking across silos – and where technology is concerned, we start the conversation, place the artist at the centre of it, and let them take the lead. It is only through trusting creativity and artists, I believe that many truths within technology can be discovered and harnessed. At the Serpentine, we spend a lot of our time considering how to ensure artists are at the forefront of society’s biggest conversations.

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What would you say is the most detrimental element of technology for contemporary society?

No question about it – mental health. We need to do more to protect ourselves, our children and to understand better how to harness the possibility of technology to make culture deeper, not shallower– there’s a long way to go yet. We need to make sure social media doesn’t make us anti-social – we aim to offer the possibilities and options from mobile tours and printed material to live performance, sanctuary or silence.

How did you find moving into the role and taking over from Julia Peyton Jones, who had been in the position for 25 years?

After 15 years of engagement with the Serpentine Galleries, most recently as a board member, it was wonderful being appointed as CEO by our Chairman Michael Bloomberg and fellow trustees, who now include Sir David Adjaye, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Maja Hoffman.

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What do you enjoy most about your job?

Offering free art and free thinking to over 1 million visitors each year!

Under what circumstances do you thrive best?

As Katharine Graham said “to do what you love and feel it has meaning, what could be more fun?” The Serpentine is a safe space for unsafe ideas and my 60 colleagues inspire me with their commitment to community and culture.

What would you say is the most important piece of advice you have received in your career?

“Always send the elevator back down”

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Do you think it is important for women to seek a mentor within their field – do you have one/have you had one in the past?

I had the good fortune to be friends with the late great Dame Zaha Hadid, who was a great mentor for me. In our final conversations, she said ‘never let there be an end to experimentation’ – ever since that day, it remains my mantra, and inspires me in all I do.’ [Dame Zaha Hadid designed the Serpentine Sackler Galleries and Magazine restaurant].

You are a strong advocate of London’s strong cultural heritage – can you tell me how it influences you?

I’m Russian-born, and was raised in Canada, but London remains the cultural capital for me. London champions creativity in such a way that its’ cultural capital is second to none. Let’s not forget the way the arts can also drive business, they have a hugely beneficial impact on the economy, as our chairman Michael Bloomberg put it: culture attracts capital, more than capital attracts culture because the arts attract dreamers and innovators’. We must continue to create the places and spaces that attract dreamers and innovators. (I am currently chairing the Grosvenor Estates commission to re-image Grosvenor Square, with that spirit in mind).

Can you tell me a bit more about the Serpentine’s new series of unique interdisciplinary presentations by leading voices in the creative fields and why you chose to commission Grace wales bonner to inaugurate the series?

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We believe this is how a gallery should work today – as a place for artists to explore the cross-pollination of ideas. I cannot imagine a great artist or designer working in a silo, without literature or culture feeding into what they do – Grace Wales Bonner is such a polymath, and therefore the perfect commission for us.

Music, literature and culture all feed into Grace’s research process, which is so thorough and elaborate, with ideas that she then collaborated with artists on, it makes a powerful, impactful show, the reviews have been superlative, there have been queues round the block, it clearly resonated with a huge audience – it continues until end of February – and will culminate in her catwalk show for her next collection – with the Serpentine Gallery as a venue, it shows how the cultural landscape can build fascinating connections.

Can you name your favourite Serpentine exhibition/ commission/ event of 2018 and anything in particular that you are most excited about for 2019?

As the mother of two children, I would never identify a favourite, I feel the same about the shows we put on at the Serpentine, but the show that burned into my memory from last year was Christo’s Mastaba of oil barrels floating on the Serpentine. I walk across the bridge between the two galleries several times a day and always find myself remembering his bold vision bought to life demonstrating our core value of experimentation. “A gentle disturbance on the horizon” is what he wanted and we certainly made that seemingly impossible 20 meter dream come true.

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For 2019, again without singling out one favourite, I’m so proud of the number of women artists we are championing in the coming year: Grace Wales Bonner launched our boundary-blind programme at the SG. She will be followed by Marina Abramovic, the late Emma Kunz, Hito Steyerl, Luchita Hurtado, and Faith Ringgold. Gender aside these artists are all so spectacular in their own right, covering issues from Augmented Reality to social inequality, diversity and surrealism, mysticism and healing – let there be no end to possibility. 

Want more? Check the Serpentine Galleries out here!
Words by Lara Monro and photography by Luke Fullalove