Colchester’s Firstsite art gallery has won the coveted Art Fund Museum of the Year award, 10 years after it opened.
The £100,000 prize was presented to the Essex organisation’s director Sally Shaw at a ceremony at London’s Science Museum on Tuesday.
The centre has been praised for its community work, such as offering free school meals to children in the holidays and sending out art packs.
Art Fund director Jenny Waldman said it “exceeded all our expectations”.
She added that Firstsite was “an outstanding example of innovation and integrity”.
She explained: “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.
“Here is a small organisation thinking big and caring for their local community. Here is excellence in Essex.”
The gallery beat four other venues to the prestigious prize – Experience Barnsley, The Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds, Timespan in Helmsdale in the Scottish Highlands, and the Centre for Contemporary Art Derry-Londonderry. They each won £15,000 for making the final.
Firstsite’s recent exhibitions include a summer show called Welcome to Essex by Michael Landy, while the lockdown art packs were put together by 50 artists including Mark Wallinger and downloaded by almost 100,000 people.
‘Bizarre but excited’
Shaw has previously said her art space is “relentlessly inventive”.
“Everything should be constantly changing – it’s an art gallery,” she said. “There’s no rules. That goes from how we run our restaurant to the things that are in our shop to the difference we can make in a town like Colchester. It should be extraordinarily creative.”
Speaking about the 8,500 free school meals they plated up, Shaw said that while “it was bizarre for an art gallery to be doing that and part of me is really depressed by that… part of me is excited… because the people we meet now, many have never been to a gallery before”.
Firstsite also showcased The Great Big Art Exhibition, which encouraged people to put their own art in their windows during lockdown; and Art for Life, an exhibition of work by frontline NHS workers.
In response to Black Lives Matter, the gallery commissioned Essex artist Elsa James to make a downloadable work titled We Stand With You. It also worked with clients of Refugee Action Colchester for a collection titled My Name Is Not Refugee.
Last year, the Art Fund shared the prize money equally between five museums due to the challenges faced by the pandemic.
The Art Fund is the national fundraising charity for art, and provides millions of pounds every year to help museums to acquire and share works of art across the UK.