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Yana Peel

On the Business of Art, "Artivism", Innovation and Much More

Interview Transcript

Susan Liautaud (SL): How influential are the arts (visual art, literature and poetry, and the performing arts) on the ethics (principles, behaviour and decision-making) of society in its time? On subsequent generations?

Yana Peel (YP): I have always believed the aphorism that life is short and art is long, Ars Longa, Vita Brevis. Objects define, and often outlast, civilizations. Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects walks us through this perspective. One example is the Löwenmensch (also known as the Lion Man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel)—the ivory sculpture of part lion part human that is 40,000 years old found in a German cave in 1939 and one of the oldest known pieces of figurative art. [We discussed how today’s blurring of the boundaries between animal and human involve such scientific endeavours as growing human organs inside pigs for transplant purposes.]

Art shows us that imagination is possible. Imagination can take us anywhere. Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” So art may not always find or define the pathways or the ethical frameworks, but it insists on a multiplicity of opinions that we are particularly at risk of losing in a self-selective social media environment.


SL:What ethical responsibility, if any, do individual artists have in creating or performing their work?

YP: Many of the artists with whom I engage personally could be described as “artivists.” They take the ethical dimension of their work very seriously. The artists I admire the most have a true north. People like Wolfgang Tillmans, Mark Bradford and Theaster Gates fall in this category. Ai Wei Wei noted that a small act is worth a million thoughts in an interview I did with him at the Cambridge Union recently. Theaster Gates’ regeneration of South Side Chicago is another extraordinary example of taking the power from Washington DC to the city. His rebuild foundation is focused on “Culture-based, artist-led neighbourhood-driven community revitalization” and newly established Dorchester Enterprises is putting people in a disenfranchised, de-industrialized community back to work in the most ethical, noble way.

There is a spectrum of political responsibility. And whether or not you agree with the specific viewpoints, such as Ai Wei Wei’s Lesbos scenario, many artists are using their artistic power to influence ethically. Leonardo DiCaprio’s work on behalf of World Wildlife Fund is an example. Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has just announced that she is running for president of Cuba when Raul Castro steps down.

The question of whether making a beautiful picture is enough and how to moderate the many interpretations of what the arts is (entertainment? education?…) is challenging. Some of this is about context. Marshall McLuhan coined the term, “The medium is the message.” And artists with works positioned in a public space have a responsibility at least to open the questions. In my experience there is no tolerance for ethical failings like racism or corruption among true artists.

I guess in some way artists may have a responsibility to show universal truth and to represent that in a way that open themselves up to be critiqued. They bear the responsibility to not always be loved.


SL: Where do you look to inspiration for your own ethical principles (e.g. religion or spiritual traditions? family? history? political or other leaders? life experiences? the arts?)? How have other artists or specific works influenced your own ethical principles?

YP: I often look to family. I am from an immigrant family and grew up with a strong work ethic (not that immigrant families are the only ones with strong ethical principles). It is really important to show the next generation that there is ethical responsibility, for example the responsibility to provide free access to art for all.

As CEO—not a pervasive role in European arts—I will encompass this message of community, raising vital questions and driving solutions that are artist-led. I work a lot on the sustainable ecology for art, in order to thrive against a background of: dwindling government funding and competition for private resources of corporations and philanthropists.


SL: How do ethics factor into your own work? For example, do you think about expressing a view or influencing the reader/observer/audience member on specific ethical questions?

YP: I focus a lot on having exchanges and experimentation…providing a forum, agora, or embassy—places where ideas are born and concepts are developed. I am pathologically curious! I am always trying to bring all of my various networks and new connections back to the Serpentine. Bringing multiple worlds together and challenging preconceptions is a core mission of the Serpentine.


SL: What are some important ethical challenges affecting the business side of your art?

YP: The challenge of sustainability of funding for the arts—and keeping an ethical true north while seeking funding—is key. This is about the business of art. (Andy Warhol said, “…good business is the best art”). Matching non-profit art organization needs with commercial resources and galleries’ and donors’ requirements is a delicate balance and challenging when there is so much demand for corporate social responsibility contributions and donor funding. It must be artistically led, not compromise integrity, and respect the needs of curators and the culture of the organization. The Serpentine is above all else an open landscape for art and ideas.


SL: What has been the most important ethical conundrum that you have faced as an artist?

YP: When I was chairing Para Site Art Space in Hong Kong and Ai Wei Wei went missing (during the time his show at the Tate was on), the board had a number of (understandable) cultural sensitivities about fighting for his release and supporting him as a collaborator. I was the only foreigner on the board, and I respect the different perspectives of the board members.

Every day in the arts, we deal with ethical considerations. Is it the right time to showcase John Latham’s work God is Great?


SL: What are the greatest ethics challenges you believe that society faces today? Do you address any of these ethical questions through your work?

YP: More generally, shows paid for in public institutions in emerging markets may have different norms and can practically be advertorials. This reminds me somewhat of the “KYC (know your client)” in banking. That isn’t to say that only emerging markets have these ethics challenges. In the UK and US, nationalism is also impinging globalized and liberal ideas.


SL: Which artist or specific work in your genre do you feel has made the greatest contribution to thinking about ethical questions? Please feel free to cite any individual or work from any period in history.

YP: Picasso, Guernica

Ethics is also at the core of the architecture that we are so proud to showcase at the Serpentine with each Summer Pavilion. This year, the ethics and politics of community will truly be centre stage. For example, Zaha Hadid sought to “bring a quality of light and life [to] the basic building blocks of society”, just as she has to the Sackler building where her paintings and drawings are currently on display in honour and celebration of our great friend and long-time collaborator.

Zaha believed that architecture should make you feel good, that museums should be democratic, and that art should be accessible to all — principles that we honour at the core of our work here at the Serpentine every day. Sir David Adjaye drives this social dimension of architecture on our board.


SL: If you were going to recommend one or two works (from any artistic genre) to today’s political candidates and leaders as ethical inspiration for the challenges they face which would you recommend?

YP: Gustav Metzger, Jonathan Horowitz, Arthur Jafa


SL: What role should the arts play in education today, particularly given increasing budget constraints and emphasis on technology?

YP: We should be asking ourselves what skills are demanded for the future of society. What is innovation, and how do the arts figure into that debate? For example, in the UK we are seeing a marginalization of creative subjects. Creative subjects are being downgraded. The creative industries in Britain represent 5% of the economy—people like Adele, Helen Martin (2016 Turner Prize winner) and Mary Katrantzou and companies like Spotify and Ocado. I would love to see greater emphasis on creativity and innovation.

Jobs are vital. Apprenticeships are vital. My dream is to narrow the divide between creativity and this real need for jobs. We should not be stratifying the arts at the bottom of the system. At the Serpentine, 40 of the 100 members of the team are at the “front of the house” doing incredibly important work like greeting guests and stretching canvases. Their work has a critical ethical dimension of its own.


SL: How should the arts influence or engage with science and technology today (or vice versa) from an ethical perspective?

YP: We also need to consider the boundaries between man and machine—tech, innovation, robots. Can you ever supplant the feeling of standing in front of Mark Rothko’s Red on Maroon? What about Pokémon Go? This physical/virtual debate is not about right or wrong pathways but rather about how to raise the right questions. For example, what is the balance between experiencing the art itself or the benefits of access that technology offers?


SL: Please feel to comment on any other matter that I may not have covered. What else should I have asked you that I didn’t?

YP: Short-termism is problematic with ethics generally, whether CEOs managed from quarter to quarter or millennials are always looking for the next career opportunity. Politicians clearly also contribute to this short-termism. I am looking to art, and the ethics underpinning it, to create or contribute to a “continuity of cycle.” Back to life is short and art is long…

Interview Description

Yana Peel is CEO of the Serpentine Galleries, London, one of the most recognised organisations in the global contemporary art, design and architecture worlds. Prior to this she ran Intelligence Squared Group, the leading forum for live debate.

Having co-founded Outset Contemporary Art Fund in 2003 as a hub for creative funding solutions for cultural projects, Peel maintains advisory positions across the arts that include: Tate, British Fashion Council, V-A-C Foundation Moscow, Lincoln Center and Asia Art Archive. At ParaSite Art Space and Intelligence Squared, she serves as board co-chair.

Peel is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and a regular contributor to the Davos Annual Meeting and DLD, particularly on topics at the intersection of technology and visual art. Her two children provide inspiration for her best-selling book series, Art for Baby, which benefits the National Society for the Protection against Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

Most recently, she was named by the South China Morning Post as one of “10 Outstanding Women for this Year”, selected by Debrett’s as one of “Hong Kong’s 100 People of Greatest Influence” and featured in the Evening Standard Progress 1000.

Peel was born in St Petersburg, Russia, attended McGill University, completed her post-graduate studies in Economics at LSE, and started her career at Goldman Sachs.

Welcome to my conversation with Yana Peel.