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Yorkshire Sculpture Park wins top museum prize

Award comes as director of the Detroit Institute of Arts speaks at ‘summit’ on value of museums

Art Fund Prize judges were impressed with the sculpture park's exhibition of Yinka Shonibare's works, among others. Photo: Jonty Wilde

The Art Fund Prize often throws up a surprise winner and this year was no exception. Peter Murray, the founder and executive director of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), near Leeds in the north of England, confessed that he was still finishing his main course when the theatre and film director Sam Mendes declared the YSP the winner of the 2014 award last night, 9 July, at a ceremony and dinner hosted by London's National Gallery.

The YSP impressed the judges of the award, which comes with a £100,000 prize, with the excellence of its programming, featuring exhibitions and installations by Ai Weiwei, Yinka Shonibare, and the relocation of Roger Hiorns's Seizure, 2008/2013, a move made possible by the Art Fund. Commissioned by Artangel and the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, the artist transformed an empty flat in south London into strange, blue copper sulphate crystal grotto. Hiorns and Shonibare were among the audience to share Murrary's delight and surprise.

The judges of the prize this year included a museum director from abroad for the first time, Wim Pijbes, the head of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, as well as the artist Michael Craig-Martin and Anna Somers Cocks, the chief executive of The Art Newspaper. The six-strong shortlist was of a high quality. This year's finalists were the much fancied Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth and the Ditchling Museum of Art and Crafts, both in the south of England, as well as London's Hayward Gallery and Tate Britain, and in the east of England, the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich.

Pijbes was among the speakers at a half-day conference or "summit" organised by the Art Fund and also held at the National Gallery yesterday. He was joined by Graham Beal, the director, president and chief executive of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and Jack Persekian, the founding director of the planned Palestinian Museum in Ramallah, among others.

Beal declined to go into detail mindful of his lawyers' advice about the legal and political battle the DIA is fighting to safeguard its collection from the pensioners and creditors of the bankrupt city of Detroit, but promised that it would all be in a book "one day". He declared that should the fight against those wanting to force the sale of works of art by the likes of Van Gogh, Matisse and Rembrandt in the DIA collection end up in the courts, the museum would take it all the way to the Supreme Court.

The theme of the conference was the value of museums—both economic and social—and their power to tell a national or local story. Persekian spoke about the difficulty of building a new national museum when the majority of its potential visitors cannot easily travel to Ramallah. These include Palestinians living in Gaza, in Israel and throughout the Palestinian diaspora. He said that the institution, which is privately funded, was navigating "uncharted territory that is dangerous" and drew a parallel with the experience of the Armenian diaspora.

Pijbes spoke of the Amsterdam's museums desire to combine a "gentle" form of nationalism in a "sacred place of culture", stressing that the Rijksmuseum, while a national institution, was never a royal one pointing out that many of its great works celebrate relatively ordinary people doing ordinary things. Historically the Dutch royal family, like many of their subjects, have been "salesmen", he said, hence the many great works of Dutch art that are abroad, including in the National Gallery in London.

The outgoing chairman of the Art Fund, David Verey introduced the conference. He sounded a clarion call to museums to increase access to the millions of objects in reserve collections kept in "basements and storage facilities" across the UK, mindful of the taxpayers who "unwittingly pay for museums". Verey was worried that museums are not doing more with the great number of objects not on display. Another speaker estimated this to be around 8.5 millions objects in the UK. "Deaccessioning was not the point," Verey said.

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