The NSO Group (previously) is one of the world's most notorious cyber-arms dealers, linked to horrific human rights abuses, extrajudicial killing of human rights activists, and the dirtiest of dirty trick campaigns against its critics (and their lawyers) -- they're also accused of helping with the Saudi government's murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The company has changed hands several times, and its ownership structure is predictably obscure. It's well understood, however, that a private equity firm called Novalpina own a controlling interest in the company; Novalpina's founder is Stephen Peel, and his wife, Yana Peel, was best known as the CEO for London's Serpentine Galley, which features many shows and exhibits devoted to human rights, and which she had declared that the Serpentine was a "safe space for unsafe ideas"; Ms Peel had burnished her credentials by serving "as a judge for international freedom-of-expression awards."
On Friday, the Guardian published an expose accusing Yana Peel of being co-owner of Novalpina, and of taking ownership of her husband's stake in NSO Group's parent company. In her response to the Guardian article, Peel acknowledged her stake and defended NSO, calling critics of its products "quite misinformed." She also said that despite her financial interests, she had "no involvement in the operations or decisions of Novalpina, which is managed by my husband, Stephen Peel, and his partners."
The report set off a firestorm in the art and human rights world over the weekend, and by Monday, Peel had resigned as CEO, while issuing a statement condemning her critics, characterising their concerns as "a concerted lobbying campaign against my husband’s recent investment." On Friday, Novalpina vowed to rein in NSO Group, promising "to ensure NSO’s technology is used only for its intended lawful purpose — the prevention of harm to our fundamental human rights to life, liberty and security."
Peel warned that the pressure she faced would set a precedent that put "the treasures of the art community" at risk of "an erosion of private support" -- or, as I see her point of view, "if rich people are excluded from the philanthropic world because they attain and grow their fortunes through human rights abuses and crimes, there won't be any rich philanthropists left" (I think this is probably true, and it's a feature, not a bug, of chasing oligarchs and profteers out of genteel society).
Earlier this year, the Serpentine ended its longstanding ties with the Sackler family (previously), whose family company Purdue Pharma deliberately and maliciously created the opioid crisis, making the family richer than the Rockefellers in the process (the Serpentine was not able to unwind its naming rights deal with the Sacklers, so its annex is still called the "Serpentine Sackler Gallery").
Peel characterised the campaign against her as one of "bullying and intimidation" that ran contrary to the arts world's commitment to "free expression."
I have had my own work featured at the Serpentine before; and I am also very concerned with the promotion of free expression and the elimination of bullying and intimidation, which is why I support and applaud Ms Peel's removal. The NSO Group has abetted the intimidation, surveillance, kidnapping, torture, imprisonment and murder of innumerable dissidents, journalists and campaigners. Ms Peel is free to own whatever she wants, and that ownership stake is a form of expression (albeit one that I judge to be less important than other forms of expression, such as the right to criticize oppressive governments that the NSO Group contracts with), but free speech is never free of consequences. She is free to defend the NSO Group while disavowing control over it -- and while profiting handsomely from its operations -- and I (and other Serpentine-involved artists) am free to say that in light of her ownership stake in the NSO Group, her involvement with the Serpentine disqualifies it from receiving my artistic support or respect.
This is a position that many artists took in light of the Guardian article, and the Serpentine's board took a decision in light of that view, deciding that artists and campaigners' involvement with the gallery was more important than Peel's.
In her resignation statement, Ms. Peel hit out at artists and others who led crusades against museums. “The world of art is about free expression,” she said. “But it is not about bullying and intimidation.”
“If campaigns of this type continue, the treasures of the art community — which are so fundamental to our society — risk an erosion of private support,” she added. “That will be a great loss for everyone.”
Serpentine Galleries Chief Quits, With Harsh Words for Activist Artists [Alex Marshall/New York Times]
(Image: Index on Censorship, CC-BY)