Firstsite in Colchester has won the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021 award. The £100,000 prize is the largest of its kind and was awarded to the Essex museum for being an “outstanding example of innovation and integrity,” says Jenny Waldman, the Art Fund director and chair of the judging panel. “At their core is powerful, engaged contemporary art, housed in a gallery that gives space for everyone, from artists to NHS staff to local families and refugee groups.”
The small museum won the award in part for its work during the pandemic, including hosting a food bank, creating free activity packs with renowned artists during lockdown, and running The Great Big Art Exhibition, which encouraged the public to make works of art and stick them in their windows. “Here is a small organisation thinking big and caring for their local community,” Waldman says. “Here is excellence in Essex.”
The organisation’s engagement with the local community and its location is reflected in its programming, as seen in recent exhibitions such Art for Life, curated with the help of key workers, and Michael Landy’s Welcome to Essex, which explored the sometimes-maligned county’s reputation.
The other shortlisted museums were the Centre for Contemporary Art Derry~Londonderry, Experience Barnsley, the Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds, and Timespan in Helmsdale. Each runner-up receives £15,000. Along with Waldman, the judging panel included the Tate director Maria Balshaw, the broadcaster Edith Bowman, the Common Guild director Katrina Brown, the strategic projects lead at Google Suhair Khan, and the artist Thomas J. Price.
“I’ve had the real pleasure of visiting each one of the five finalists,” says Bowman who presented the award. “Words fail me at what they’ve done with tiny teams and budget. What Firstsite has achieved is mind-blowing.”
Last year the prize was shared equally among the five nominated museums, while in 2019 the award was given to St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff. Previous winners include Tate St Ives, the Hepworth Wakefield, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
• The Art Newspaper is the official media partner for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021 award