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‘I celebrate anything that is there to bring the arts to audiences’

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Frieze’s 20th anniversary is a big moment for the Russian-born Canadian Yana Peel, who is now global head of arts and culture at Chanel, headquartered in London. This is not only because she is “wildly excited” about the richness and diversity of London’s arts offering at this time but also because Peel is the co-founder of the Outset Contemporary Art Fund (with Candida Gertler), which was launched in Frieze’s inaugural year, 2003.

Outset, an independent UK charity, which now operates on a global scale, plays a central role in funding contemporary art projects. Its Frieze Tate Fund Supported by Endeavour has worked collaboratively with leading curators and the Tate to acquire more than 100 pieces at the fair for the museum’s collection, while also commissioning works from artists such as Francis Alÿs and Steve McQueen.

“It was marvellous to start with Matthew [Slotover] and Amanda [Sharp],” Peel says, “to think of the type of philanthropy that would be a win-win for our endeavour and one that really honours the museum. So, I am continuing in that spirit, and I still have a great relationship with [Tate director] Maria Balshaw and the new Frieze leadership.”

Peel joined Chanel in 2020, following on from her role as chief executive officer of the Serpentine Galleries, where she had previously served as a board member. She also holds several advisory positions, including one on Tate’s International Council.

At the fashion house she presides over the Chanel Culture Fund, which supports artists, galleries and museums to foster innovation, cross-disciplinary approaches and “foregrounding missing narratives”.

Meaningful engagement

Peel is intent on developing richer, more meaningful engagement and long-term collaborations, as opposed to splashing works of art across branded products and premises, in what can be a short-term relationship. Her particular focus is on “game-changers” both institutionally and artistically, and she is committed to deepening access to the arts. “I celebrate anything that is there to bring the arts to audiences, particularly in the spirit of Gilbert & George’s ‘art for all’,” she says. Peel attributes the direction she has taken to her own track record and to a 110-year history of Chanel philanthropy, “going back to our founding days of Chanel as patron of Pablo Picasso, Sergei Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau—and we intend to extend this horizon in a non-transactional way.” She defines “non-transactional” as the way the fund “honours cultural leaders and the way they have to deal with a host of immediate demands, often at the expense of time and space”.

With its partnership with the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Peel says, “it wasn’t about sponsoring a show or an opening; it was thinking about how over three years we could do something very transformative and embark on their biggest challenge, which at the time was foregrounding more female voices. So, we thought in a non-commercial spirit about ‘How do we put Flavia Frigeri in as curator? How do we go about not just buying works, which we did as well, but delving into the archives to really look at what’s there?’ That approach is mirrored in how we look at our relationship with the Pompidou Centre: we are thinking about ‘What does the museum need?’ Not ‘What does Chanel need?’”. The fund is now launching two major new museum partnerships, with the Leeum Museum of Art in Seoul and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Peel especially values collaborations with cultural leaders. “Museum directors globally can be the most optimistic people, even in the face of political upheaval and natural disasters,” she says. “We want to be closest to the people who know where to find the light and heat. That’s our singularity. We are discussing with Taco Dibbits at the Rijksmuseum how to bring women into the heart of their collection.”

The fund is presently involved in collaborations with cultural leaders including Balshaw, Tristram Hunt at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Nicholas Cullinan at the NPG and National Theatre director Rufus Norris, while Chanel’s 1,500 London staff have a culture pass that allows them to freely engage with dance, theatre and the visual arts.

When asked about the qualities of leadership she looks for in the artists Chanel works with, Peel says: “All of them have tremendous resilience; artistic durability is so important. Look at Sarah Lucas, Marina Abramović, Rebecca Warren.” And as for institutional leaders, the qualities she prizes are: “innovation, vision, creativity and empathy—and courage”.

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