Firstsite wins Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021

The Colchester gallery secured the award and £100,000 prize as it celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Firstsite in Colchester has been named the winner of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021,securing the award and a £100,000 prize.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Firstsite is a contemporary arts organisation which displays a mix of international historic, modern and contemporary art.

It was announced as the winner yesterday evening at the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021 ceremony, which was held at the Science Museum in London and hosted live across BBC channels.

Among the judging panel this year was broadcaster Edith Bowman, who said of the finalists: “I’ve had the real pleasure of visiting each one of the five finalists. Words fail me at what they’ve done with tiny teams and budgets. What Firstsite has achieved is mind-blowing.”

Jenny Waldman, Art Fund director and chair of the judges for Art Fund Museum of the Year, added: “From inspiring everyone to turn their windows into a nationwide gallery during lockdown to feeding local kids in the school holidays, [Firstsite is] an outstanding example of innovation and integrity.”

During the pandemic Firstsite lent its building to neighbouring charity, Community 360, to run a food bank, and created activity packs which went on to feature over 50 artists and were downloaded by over 92,000 households.

The organisation also led on The Great Big Art Exhibition which encouraged people to display their own art in their windows during lockdown to create a nationwide gallery.

Waldman continued: “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. They exceeded all our expectations. Here is a small organisation thinking big and caring for their local community.”

Last year in response to Black Lives Matter, Firstsite commissioned Elsa James to make a downloadable work in solidarity and continued the Super Black festival celebrating black culture in Essex.

Other significant initiatives have included My name is not Refugee, an arts council collection curated by clients of Refugee Action Colchester, and Art For Life, an exhibition commissioned by the NHS with key workers to aid understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on mental health.

Shortlisted for this year’s award were Northern Ireland’s Centre for Contemporary Art, Experience Barnsley, The Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds and Timespan in the Scottish Highlands.

Each of the other finalist museums will receive a £15,000 prize in recognition of their achievements.

Alongside Bowman and Waldman on this year’s judging panel were Maria Balshaw, director of Tate and chair of the National Museum Directors’ Council; Katrina Brown, director of The Common Guild; Art Fund trustee; Suhair Khan, strategic projects lead at Google, and artist Thomas J Price.

Last year the Art Fund acknowledged the difficulties faced by museums and galleries, increasing the prize fund to £200,000 and splitting the award equally between Aberdeen Art Gallery, Gairloch Museum, the Science Museum, South London Gallery and Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne.