Interview Yana Peel: Serpentine Gallery CEO discusses arts and ideas

The Serpentine Galleries hold a unique position. They are nestled in Kensington Gardens in London’s glorious Hyde Park. They occupy discreet spaces and you may not even notice them walking by. Yet the two boutique galleries – Serpentine and Sackler – have held some of the most exciting exhibitions in the city. Then there is the annual commission for the Serpentine Gallery pavilions – one of the most anticipated events in the architecture calendar since its launch in 2000 showing work by Zaha Hadid, Frank Ghery, Bjarke Ingels and now Diebedo Francis Kéré.

Yana Peel became chief executive of the organisation over a year ago when she took over the position from its founder Julia Peyton-Jones. She has an extraordinary record of service to the arts, co-founding the contemporary art fund Outset, co-chairing the public debate forum Intelligence Squared Group; she sits on many arts advisory boards, and still appears to have time to write children’s books.

Peel also brings a very different approach to the Serpentine programme which I discovered when I met with her in March for an article for Weatherbys Private Bank Magazine. Below is an edited version of our interview.

Nargess Banks: You’ve spoken passionately about making exciting art and ideas available to a broad audience, and there is something egalitarian about the Serpentine Galleries being accessible and free, which also relates to your background at Outset and art philanthropy.

Yana Peel: I am incredibly excited about this open landscape for art and ideas. What we are trying to do is lure in the visitor who would normally not come in, for instance with the Pavilion, whether it’s the wireless access in terms of the mobile app, or virtual reality with Zaha Hadid. It is about creating programmes around art, architecture, fashion and music. It is about collapsing these universes and being a hub for these kinds of multiple discussions which are so relevant in the world today.

NB: How do you see the Serpentine expanding on its mission to bring these visions to an even wider audience?

YP: Well, as with all things we do at the Serpentine, it starts with the art and the artists we work with. Take our 2017 Summer season – we are excited to present Grayson Perry, the first solo UK show of the American filmmaker and artist Arthur Jafa, and our Summer Pavilion by architect Diebedo Francis Kéré.

As you can tell by the show’s title ‘Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’, Grayson addresses front on the question of popularity and populism – who comes to an art gallery and why. AJ is someone with a cult reputation for work with Spike Lee, Stanley Kubrick and Solange Knowles. Here he reinvents the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, taking his message right across London with a series of interventions in unexpected places. And Kéré is a marvel, and perhaps the nicest man you will ever meet, with community at the very heart of his practice. All these artists are excited by the opportunities the Serpentine presents and we’re excited to work with them. We are a small gallery in terms of our footprint, but with a local, national and international reach.

NB: I’ve read you admire creatives with disruptive ideas, a vision you share with the artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist. Given our current political climate, how crucial is the role of galleries like the Serpentine to provoke open debates, explore how the arts can help shape society, agitate even?

LP: Essential! And it is the artists who are best place to do this. That’s why everything we do is artist led. The late John Latham (who exhibited at the Serpentine at the time of our interview) believed powerfully in the artist’s role in society. His Artist Placement Group put artists in industry long before the concept of residency became cool. At Sackler, we showed four contemporary artists picking up this radical mantle.

NB: The younger generation consumes art in different ways, perhaps in a less linear fashion. How do you see the organisation responding going forward?

LP: It is a given that we must be where they are. This mean across all social media platforms, those we know and those we don’t yet know about. Technology is a key focus for me, and something Hans Ulrich and I work closely on with our curator of digital. How can we use technology to give bigger and wider audiences access to our art? More importantly, we need to make sure we are listening as well as talking. It has to be a dialogue, always. Whether that is Hans Ulrich’s 89+ project (co-founded by Simon Castets), our educational outreach on the Edgware Road, or our fantastic Future Contemporaries fundraising board. To be meaningful, the dialogue must reach across all areas of the organisation.

NB: Events such as the summer marathons, although open to all, can be intimidating for some. How can they be made to be more inclusive?

YP: The Marathon is an annual joy, and last year’s Miracle Marathon was our best yet. The second day was held just off Brick Lane, mixing our West London magic with East London cool. The atmosphere was fantastic and the audience definitely younger than ever. We also broadcast the entire event on the Serpentine Radio, opening it up to a whole new audience, giving people the chance to engage with the material on their own terms.

NB: The annual Serpentine Pavilion commission has become one of the most respected events in the architecture calendar. How do you see this project pushing the envelope even further?

LP: (The 2017 Pavilion winner) Francis Kéré’s work is so exciting and a way of bringing his village of Gando, Burkino Faso into Kensington Gardens. The Pavilion has such a history and Hans Ulrich and I, in making our first joint selection this year, were so mindful of that. Equally, we did want to push things forward. Kéré’s practice is rooted in community and sustainability. He is also the most wonderful storyteller. His design, based on a tree which is the focal meeting point in his hometown on Gando, is the inspiration for a new piece of programming that will bring even wider audiences in to what we call an open landscape of art and ideas.

Watch this space as we are going to bring in different groups. We’re looking at how we can use our privileged position, use our platform to bring in dissenting voices. Always better to debate a question than to answer…

Nargess Banks

‘Grayson Perry: Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!’ and Arthur Jafa ‘A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions’ are on at the Serpentine and Sackler galleries until 10 September. Francis Kéré’s Serpentine Pavilion will be at Kensington Gardens until 8 October.

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