A gallery that six years ago was placed in special funding measures because of concerns over its viability has been named winner of the world’s largest museum prize.
The turnaround for Firstsite, in Colchester, is remarkable. In 2015 it was in crisis mode after Arts Council England removed it from the national portfolio, instead offering a year-by-year funding deal. On Tuesday its director, Sally Shaw, was presented with the £100,000 prize as Art Fund museum of the year 2021.
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, one of a number of newly built contemporary art galleries that included the Hepworth in Wakefield and Turner Contemporary in Margate. It had a rocky start but survived the funding problems and returned to the national portfolio in 2018. Under Shaw’s leadership it has thrived.
Within days of the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020 the gallery came up with the idea of creating artist-led activity packs for children and young people, a hipper version of The Big Book of Things to Do.
They included the British artist Mark Wallinger encouraging people to draw their hands to put in their window as a kind of nationwide wave. Michael Landy addressed the toilet paper overbuying frenzy by asking children to stack individual tissue leaves until the structure fell over. The packs went on to feature more than 50 artists and were downloaded by 92,000 households.
Other initiatives during the pandemic included becoming the operations base for a neighbouring charity, Community 360, to run a food bank, and launching The Great Big Art Exhibition, a nationwide project encouraging people to make and exhibit art.
The Art Fund also pointed to other successful projects over the past year such as Art For Life, an exhibition commissioned by the NHS with key workers to help understand the impact of Covid-19 on mental health.
Waldman said that the core of Firstsite was “powerful, engaged contemporary art, housed in a gallery that gives space for everyone, from artists to NHS staff to local families and refugee groups. They exceeded all our expectations. Here is a small organisation thinking big and caring for their local community. Here is excellence in Essex.”
Accepting the award Shaw, who has been director for five years, said she had two words: “Go Essex!”
She continued: “Firstsite is amazing, I am incredibly proud to be the director. We do two things at Firstsite, we work with some incredible artists and simultaneously we work with some extraordinary communities.”
The announcement was made at a ceremony at the Science Museum in London. All five museums shortlisted had been praised for their excellence in staying connected with communities during the pandemic. The others, each receiving £15,000, were the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Derry, Experience Barnsley, the Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds and Timespan in Helmsdale, a village in Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands.
The judges were Maria Balshaw, director of Tate; the broadcaster Edith Bowman; Katrina Brown, director of the Common Guild; Suhair Khan, strategic projects lead at Google; and the 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 London in 2016) and comparatively tiny ones (the Lightbox in Woking in 2008 and the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow in 2013).