A conversation with Yana Peel and Karen Frank

A conversation with Yana Peel and Karen Frank

07 March 2019

In the latest Barclays Beyond podcast Karen Frank, CEO of Barclays Private Bank and Overseas Services and Yana Peel, CEO of The Serpentine Galleries discuss leadership and challenging preconceptions.

What’s incredibly exciting at the moment is our ability to show that diversity of voices, to appeal to that diversity of audiences, to represent race, class, gender, ethnicity through the widest lens.

Yana Peel

CEO Serpentine Galleries

Future Contemporaries Mystery Night

Future Contemporaries Mystery Night

Collectors, clients and artists gathered at London’s Serpentine Galleries this month for a Future Contemporaries Mystery Night, sponsored by Barclays Private Bank.


How multidisciplinary perspectives are reshaping contemporary art

Hans Ulrich Obrist and Claude Adjil of London’s Serpentine Galleries discuss how the latest Grace Wales Bonner exhibition highlights the way collective, multidisciplinary perspectives are reshaping contemporary art.

Here is the transcript of the podcast

Karen Frank: Welcome everyone to our Barclays Beyond podcast. My name is Karen Frank. I’m the CEO of Barclays Private Bank and Overseas Services and, better yet, I’m joined by my very, very good friend Yana Peel. She’s also the CEO of the Serpentine Galleries, with whom we’ve just had a very, very special event recently about celebrating the Future Contemporaries’ artists. So welcome, Yana.

Yana Peel: Thank you, Karen. Pleasure to be here today.

Karen Frank: Excellent. And we’re here to talk about a variety of topics, hopefully most of them good and interesting, but revolving around art, finance, our careers, our interests and basically all things disruptive and collaborative, which seems to be the common theme that we have. So, why don’t we start there? 

I think, Yana, you know, when we talk about collaboration, when we talk about innovation, there’s a lot to do. You come from an iconic British brand but when we think about things that are ubiquitous and British, what is it that you’d like to highlight in terms of the things that you’re really proud of with the Serpentine?

Yana Peel: As you say, culture and commerce for me have always been closely aligned. And, as Andy Warhol said, good business is the best art. So it’s terrific to be here today with you discussing it in this context. And when you talk about the iconic British brand that the Serpentine is, I guess what I’m proudest of is the way that the Serpentine really reflects a very diverse, a very inclusive, a very international and an innovative Britain which is what the arts in our community really represent to me today.

Karen Frank: Wonderful to hear that and it sounds very much like the finance world. But I think that there are some common themes here in terms of the way that the event worked so well and, again, it was such a wonderful event, certainly celebrating Grace Wales Bonner, the different artists who were present.

For me, it was also a great chance to see how our clients… (And we certainly talk about finance in art. We obviously need finance in order to produce and purchase art.) But the really interesting part for me was the way that the clients really had an appreciation for the mastery of the art, the real embodiment of that kind of talent. How did you think about bringing different artists together or how do you see collaboration and disruption working hand in hand?

Yana Peel: Collaboration, as you say, is at the core of what we do and as we look at our 65-person-strong team at the gallery, it’s really thinking about a mission of how we inspire the widest audiences with the urgency of art, architecture and design.

For me over the past three years the real shift has been making sure that we can challenge preconceptions of where art can be encountered and by whom, and engage a visitor who might not otherwise come. So I think the reason why it’s so exciting to create events like Mystery Nights; why it’s so exciting to showcase, on one end, the 27-year-old Grace Wales Bonner and, on the other end, the 88-year-old Christo whose 20-metre mastaba rose high above the lake all summer… it’s really that idea of challenging preconceptions.

It’s about creating those essential encounters, and it’s really having artists shed heat and light on the biggest issues of our day. And so that’s why it’s really exciting, as we look at our programme, to look at each and every segment and to think about how it is we create that safe space for unsafe ideas and how we continue to promote free thinking and free art.

Karen Frank: That’s fantastic, and I do like that line, ‘creating a safe space for unsafe ideas’. I don’t think that we have that many liberties in the finance world to really go out, although I do think that we have increasingly embraced the idea of, as you said, outside partnerships. How do we bring the best of many technologies of different parts of the world to bear for our clients.

How we think about taking risks with our own business and with our own attempts to bring something differentiated to our clients. So, I think very similarly, as you said as well, we have a very client-centric focus: what are people looking to do, what are people looking to create and how can we make those kinds of connections.

Yana, you and I have known each other a very long time, I won’t say exactly how long but we originally knew each other from finance. You mention you’ve recently come back from Hong Kong, so you’ve changed both industry as well as location. Could you just take us a little bit through that journey and how you’ve made the reverse commute out of finance?

Yana Peel: I think that, for me, it’s been a really wonderful circuitous path to be able to make those bridges between culture and commerce in a way that was very natural – from my departure from the banking days to start a forum for crowdfunded philanthropy for the arts that very much focused on support of the arts as a commercial and beneficial and community-engaged – rather than a painful – charitable, endeavour.

I came back from Hong Kong in June 2016 and – in a very divided time just after the referendum – It was our responsibility to put on a show – Grayson Perry. And to make sure it was, as he called it, the most popular art exhibition ever. So, it’s thinking through those challenging times, really, how to be very solution-led. And with artists like Grayson Perry, you know, he went out there and he had the most popular Twitter campaign. He had the BBC broadcast. He brought leavers and remainers together.

And so, what’s interesting for us where we sit is continuing to be that platform for a safe and constructive and often contentious debate, but to make sure that we’re open to listening to each other’s sides and giving people that opportunity to debate and deconstruct and meet people who are not necessarily like them in the most exciting moment of delight and discovery.

Karen Frank: And that’s, you know, it’s a wonderful view. We embrace a wide range of clients; we think about the different parts of the market and it’s really important for us to understand our clients as individuals.

Yana Peel: I think art prevails when it’s sustainable, and the only sustainable model is one in which you are delivering for all of your stakeholders and, for us, that means our artists, it means our audiences and our partners.

If you look at our model, now we’re chaired by Michael Bloomberg and so, as a model, Mike always says: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So, we’re always measuring our success in the most tangible ways. Of course, there’s the ephemera of a million people walking past the Christo sculpture and suggesting that ‘happy’ is the word they feel when they do that. 

There’s also the tangible benefit, and we know that culture attracts capital faster than capital attracts culture so, for us, it’s thinking about harnessing this privileged real estate that we sit in and yet also making sure that the council, chaired by Lady Elena Foster, really delivers on the kinds of events and programmes and educational engagements that really hit our donors and our patrons and our partners wherever they most wish to engage with their most creative space.

Karen Frank: You mentioned Michael Bloomberg and other iconic names in there. Another one out there is Hans Ulrich, creative director. A fun fact for everyone listening to the podcast: he has written 324 books. Real question for you, Yana: how do you keep up?!

Yana Peel: You should ask him how he keeps up! I mean we are old friends and new collaborators, professionally. Before being selected as the CEO by Mike Bloomberg and the team, I was on the board for a good year with Hans Ulrich. And so for many years, as I would prep for Davos interviews with the late, great Zaha Hadid, who was a great friend of ours, he would warn me Zaha will tell you the first question is terrible and, once you recover from that, you can get over it.

I would ask him about Olafur Eliasson and how to deal with climate change when I would get to interview him at certain moments and Hans would say, just ask him about his breakdancing championship days in Sweden. And so, I think what’s wonderful about our collaboration with Hans Ulrich Obrist as artistic director is that we don’t try to drive in each other’s lanes but we both look to accelerate the pace and the velocity in terms of the essential encounters that we can further.

So, for us it’s really thinking about how he leads the artistic programme, how I serve as CEO or ‘chief eternal optimist’ as it were, and I think because both of us have this desire to push the boundaries and, in Zaha’s great spirit, to believe that there should be no end to experimentation because we don’t have a collection to service, we realise we’re only as good as the ideas that each of us can generate and amplify.

Karen Frank: I have to say that at least the two you as the dynamic duo have certainly breathed just wonderful and refreshing life into the Serpentine. I think that’s visible not just to those of us who happen to live in London but to the wider world, where we’re very much looking forward to see what’s next.

Yana Peel: That’s kind of you. Yesterday I was watching the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary and I love how she and Supreme Court Justice Scalia have such opposing views and yet they are the odd couple.

And so it’s interesting. We are not the odd couple but we are both only children. We both have so many interests outside of our institution, but rather than diluting our interests I think with the fashion and with the music and with the theatre and with the drama, we’re able to really be very interdisciplinary and to break down the notions of art with a small ‘a’ and bring all of our resources into this institution, and experiment in a way that’s probably radical but that is embraced by our board.

So, we’re very fortunate to work within a construct that enables us to do that.

Karen Frank: Thinking about our stakeholders at Barclays, and particularly in Barclays Private Bank. We think about matching up; we pride ourselves very much in being solution providers, and that can mean some of the commercial aspects of the work that you do; it can also mean – to a very large extent – some of the social, impactful and even philanthropic types of endeavours that people want to pursue.

You know, we take great strides to match the way we interact, and to match how we’re working with clients to see that we have really fulfilled those objectives – either at a point in time or over time – to help them grow and balance. But I guess, from an art perspective, how do you think about bringing together perhaps people who have those types of backgrounds and who have those types of objectives? How do you bring them to the different types of artists who will resonate with them, who will strike that balance?

Yana Peel: It’s interesting and I’d love to hear examples of recently how you’ve probably harnessed technology also to further the ambitions of your clients and where you really need to be very hands on. For us, that’s also an interesting spectrum… thinking about what you could automate and where you actually have to be incredibly manual and labour-intensive.

For us it’s really been looking at this spectrum of thinking about our most committed supporters and thinking, in this structure, what does the board look like? So, it started with the infrastructure of thinking about how we diversify our board. Then it was thinking about the structure of our donor base. Let’s look at the private individuals and what really excites them. For some, it’s really the education that we do in the community; and looking at Westminster which has the greatest discrepancy of wealth in any London borough.

It was thinking about those who are really committed to the exhibitions and thinking about which ones wanted to get closer to Rose Wiley and to know that this 84-year-old artist was going to become a David Zwirner sensation months before she had her show at the Serpentine. And it was thinking about those that were more engaged in the social matters of the community and wanted to engage there.

So, I think, at the level of high touch, it was segmenting and really making sure that people had autonomy, and they could go into the zones that were of greatest interest to them.

So along that spectrum it was thinking of everything we could do not to have to impose fees and further barriers on access, and thinking about how we created this content machine that created those £5 or free events for those who wanted to engage and that also doubled the price of a summer party ticket for those who could be donors to make sure that we could really and thoughtfully represent.

Karen Frank: And, look, I think that’s a wonderful lens and, quite frankly, a very practical one. Many of our clients are looking to get involved, they’re looking in some cases as people who are very passionate about art, passionate about, you know, collecting but they also balance that, as I mentioned, with wanting to give back. How would you recommend that they get involved with the Serpentine and is this a way that they can perhaps join a board or join an initiative that would help them achieve those goals?

Yana Peel: Well, I love to say that there are two kinds of people in this world, those who do support the Serpentine and those who will, and hopefully that applies to the listeners of this podcast. You know, we try to make it incredibly enjoyable to engage.

And, I think, that for those either wishing to start a journey of access to artists or access to collecting, the most knowledgeable people are those who are really day in, day out curating inside the organisations. And, I mean, there’s so many terrific arts organisations that would be so delighted to share their resources. These institutions largely survive on the philanthropy and the generosity and the vision of donors and our value exchange is to share those relationships, is to share the knowledge.

When we look at an event like Mystery Nights, for us that meant bringing 400 people together in the incredible Zaha Hadid-designed Serpentine Gallery, where Grace Wales Bonner – probably the youngest artist and definitely the first fashion designer in the history of the 49 years the Serpentine has been committed to excellence and experimentation – took them through a listening session that was, you know, a moment of delight and discovery.

It was coming together; it was going off to 15 collectors’ homes and experiencing those collections in the most intimate access-generated way. And I think what was beautiful there was the idea of cross- generational celebration, and it was the idea that a corporate partner could align with a radical arts organisation in a way that was very satisfying, gratifying and generated much needed funds to continue promoting free art.

Karen Frank: Absolutely. And, look, again this ability to create and delight, the ability to create these moments for clients is something that, you know, for Barclays Private Bank we’re passionate about. I think those are some of the many things that we’re trying to bring to our clients, to say there are wider ways that we’re meant to interact with you, not just about finance or just about, you know, specific topics that deal with wealth.

Yana Peel: It’s interesting when we talk about the spectrum, in terms of how to engage with clients. What we love to offer is the sanctuary of an experience. They’ll come back next month and Emma Kunz will be in the space, a long-deceased artist who’s a healer with the most beautiful paintings.

If you came in yesterday, 5,000 people came through from Marina Abramovic’s Mixed Reality. So, in that sense, it’s also wonderful to be able to offer the best of London to the world and bring the best of the world to London. So please do encourage your friends and fans to come visit us because the programme is never the same but never disappoints

Karen Frank: As you say dynamic and collaborative, that’s the way we roll. Yana, it’s been a lovely discussion so far but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you… It’s International Women’s Day coming up very soon and we do have a somewhat unique opportunity given that we have two female CEOs in the room. Can you just tell me a little bit about what success means to you and how you’ve really progressed in your role as a female CEO of the Serpentine?

Yana Peel: I’m incredibly excited by the possibilities and being in this position is an amazing opportunity to send the elevator back down. What’s incredibly exciting at the moment is our ability to show that diversity of voices, to appeal to that diversity of audiences, to represent race, class, gender, ethnicity through the widest lens.

And, as I look at what I think will inspire the widest audiences with the urgency of art and architecture, it’s really reimagining, as we hit 50 next year, what the next 50 years will look like, and making sure that the artist has a voice in the solution-led thinking of the day.

Karen Frank: Yana, you touched on so many good points, and there is the Madeleine Albright quote that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support women. It sounds as though you very much take that to heart.

You know, I’ve had such amazing opportunities at Barclays and throughout my career, in terms of thinking through different challenges that I’ve wanted to take on, to be able to ebb and flow as I’ve needed to in my career, to really have the opportunity to change, effectively change roles, even within Barclays at a relatively senior level, and I’ve valued all of these very much.

Yana Peel: I agree that we’re very aligned on so many issues, thinking about inclusion, thinking about innovation, internationalism and, of course, the big issues of the day. For us automation, technology is at the forefront of that and that’s why creativity, we see, as a fundamental space which is going to define what makes us human.

So, as we look at where the Serpentine sits, at our responsibility to really bring that power of transformation to people, it’s really thinking about that Albert Einstein quote that logic will take us from A to B but creativity will take us everywhere. And thinking, as we do face the future of automation, of robots, what is it that we can bring to people in terms of differentiation of thinking that will really make sure that we’re empowering them and equipping them for the roles and the skills and the opportunities that will be demanded tomorrow.

Karen Frank: Yana, it’s such a wonderful analogy. From our perspective, we have fundamentally global clients. They may reside in one place or in multiple places. They try to balance work, life – you know – obviously the different goals and ambitions that they have. And the use of technology or being ubiquitous or being what they need, where they need it, at the time and in the form that they need it, is one of the ways that we think about technology.

It’s fundamentally changing the way that we build the connectivity, changing the way that we drive the relationship and really connect with our clients and do it in a way that is the most convenient and useful for them.

Yana Peel: And I agree that, as the possibilities of technology open up spheres of acceleration, what we’re both looking to do is to figure out how to use the positive power of technology. Let’s take the Impressionists. When paint tubes were invented, that enabled artists to suddenly go outside and led to the advent of Impressionism. Sometimes technology is really there to enhance a very physical experience and we’re always thinking about how we bring those tools to our artists, to our audiences to make sure that we are more connected.

Karen Frank: Yana, it’s been such a lovely discussion. Thank you so much for coming and thank you for the collaboration, for the partnership that we’ve had certainly in this Future Contemporaries event and hopefully well beyond.

Yana Peel: Well, thank you very much for that, Karen. The future is certainly looking contemporary for us. We have the 98-year-old Luchita Hurtado in her breakout show this summer. We have Faith Ringgold, the Harlem Renaissance born painter, who is coming to us this summer as well. Junya Ishigami will be representing Japan, one year ahead of the 2020 Olympics in the 19th of our architectural series. And so, for us at the Serpentine, being contemporary is certainly a state of mind, open to all and – again – that safe space for unsafe ideas.

Karen Frank: Thank you so much, Yana. It was a real pleasure to have this time with you.