Yana Peel, CEO of Serpentine Galleries Discusses the Future

London’s Serpentine Galleries are small in size, but high on global impact. Their newly appointed CEO, Yana Peel, describes what’s on the horizon.

Jo Craven

IMG_5429 – by Kate Berry
Alongside Artistic Director Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Yana Peel is focused on evolving the mission of the Serpentine Galleries.

The arrival of Russian-born art world insider Yana Peel as the new CEO at London’s Serpentine Galleries has been met with tangible excitement. And Peel’s own enthusiasm is evident: “I just love that moment of being passionate about an idea and bringing people to it,” she says of her role in creating a shared vision for the galleries with Artistic Director Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Her previous high-impact projects include co-founding the innovative philanthropic organization Outset, and co-chairing Intelligence Squared in Hong Kong.

Peel brings a new sphere of experience—one that is finely aligned to the art world’s increasingly global vision. “We want to install the most diverse board in the European arts landscape.” Alongside her and Obrist is former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, who announced during his 2013 departure from office that he was taking on the chairmanship of the Serpentine Galleries, underlining the emotional pull many feel toward the institution. The power trio will be a formidable task force for the galleries’ future.

“Yana and I want to evolve the gallery,” says Obrist. “We are living in very troubled times. We need art more than ever. It is the principle of hope.” The two plan 60 events and eight exhibitions a year, including an impressive digital program about which Obrist is particularly enthused: “It’s really interesting that the projects have no end. These are algorithms that will evolve as long as there’s electricity.”

Vital to the future of the galleries is the continued sourcing of new revenue streams to fund the almost $10 million annual running costs. Peel comes with an address book of global contacts few could compete with, which suggests the creative innovation that the galleries look to champion is in more than capable hands.

Researching 52 weekends a year, and having written countless books and staged hundreds of art shows, Obrist forms a curious couple with Peel. “Yana and I are actually old friends, and new colleagues. We have an energy connection,” he says. Peel adds that they converse late into the night with “urgent meeting” emails from Obrist, followed by “hashtag crazy ideas” in the subject boxes—which incidentally are Obrist’s favorite. “The Serpentine has these amazing spaces: An artist takes it over and develops Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). People enter from the park and they’re immersed in the world of the artist,” says Obrist. “There are very few places like this gallery, which is why artists love it so much.”

The common ground of Peel and Obrist comes from a mutual passionate belief in the power of art to transform lives. This led them to a shared friendship with the late Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid, who met with Obrist the week before she died, showing him a notebook of drawings that will form the basis of the Serpentine’s winter show. Hadid’s mantra inscribed on a napkin—“There should be no end to experimentation.”—became one for Peel and Obrist. For the Serpentine Galleries, Peel’s appointment is the start of an experimental adventure.