A gallery that six years ago was placed in special funding measures due to concerns about its viability, was named the winner of the world’s largest museum award.
The turnaround for First site, in Colchester, is remarkable. In 2015, it was in crisis mode after Arts Council England removed it from the national portfolio, offering an annual funding deal instead. On Tuesday, its director, Sally Shaw, received the award of £ 100,000 as the 2021 Art Fund Museum of the Year.
Jenny Waldman, director of the Art Fund and chair of the judges, said Firstsite was “an outstanding example of innovation and integrity.”
Firstsite opened in 2011 as one of many newly built contemporary art galleries, including Hepworth in Wakefield and Turner Contemporary in Margate. It got off to a rough start, but survived funding challenges and returned to the national portfolio in 2018. Under Shaw’s leadership, it thrived.
Days after the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, the gallery came up with the idea of creating artist-led activity packs for children and youth, a more hip version of the Big Book of Things to Do.
They included British artist Mark Wallinger encouraging people to draw their hands to put in their window like some kind of nationwide wave. Michael Landy addressed the toilet paper overbought frenzy by have children stack individual sheets of fabric until the structure falls. The packs then featured more than 50 artists and were downloaded by 92,000 households.
Other initiatives during the pandemic included becoming the operational base for a nearby charity, Community 360, to run a food bank and launching The great great art exhibition, a national project encouraging people to create and exhibit art.
The Art Fund also highlighted other successful projects over the past year, such as Art for life, an NHS-commissioned exhibit with key workers to help understand the impact of Covid-19 on mental health.
Waldman said the heart of Firstsite was “powerful and engaged contemporary art, housed in a gallery that gives space to everyone from artists and NHS staff to local families and refugee groups. They exceeded all of our expectations. Here is a small organization that thinks big and takes care of its local community. Here is excellence in Essex.
Accepting the award, Shaw, who has been a director for five years, said she had two words: “Come on Essex!”
She continued, “Firstsite is amazing, I’m incredibly proud to be the director. We do two things at Firstsite, we work with amazing artists and at the same time we work with amazing communities.”
The announcement was made during a ceremony at the Science Museum in London. The five shortlisted museums were praised for their excellence in staying in touch with communities during the pandemic. The others, each receiving £ 15,000, were the Contemporary Art Center (CCA) in Derry, Discover Barnsley, the Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds and Duration in Helmsdale, a village in Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands.
The judges were Maria Balshaw, director of Tate; broadcaster Edith Bowman; Katrina Brown, director of the Common Guild; Suhair Khan, strategic project manager at Google; and artist Thomas J Price.
Winning the prize is a huge deal in the museum world. It brings prestige but also £ 100,000. Previous winners include huge institutions (the British Museum in 2011 and the V&A in London in 2016) and relatively small institutions (the Lightbox in Woking in 2008 and the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow in 2013).