Colchester museum’s Covid initiatives win it Art Fund’s £100k prize

Colchester’s contemporary art museum, Firstsite, founded only in 2011 and put on special measures in a funding crisis by the Arts Council six years ago, has won the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year Award for 2021, and with it £100,000.

For the first time no London institutions were shortlisted this year, and Firstsite beat four other regional museums to the prize - Centre for Contemporary Art, Derry; Experience Barnsley; the Thackray Museum of Medicine, Leeds; and Timespan at Helmsdale in the Scottish Highlands - which each receive £15,000 in recognition of their achievements.

Main image copyright Jayne Lloyd

The announcement was made at a reception at the Science Museum by Jenny Waldman, director of the Art Fund and chair of the judges. “From inspiring everyone to turn their windows into a nationwide gallery during lockdown to feeding local kids in the school holidays, [Firstsite] are an outstanding example of innovation and integrity” she said. “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. Here is excellence in Essex.”

In recent years Firstsite has built a strong reputation and deep relationships with artists and the local community. During the pandemic it supported local people by turning its building into a food bank. During lockdown it created activity packs featuring more than 50 artists which were downloaded by over 92,000 households. The organisation 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.

Other initiatives included a specially commissioned downloadable work from Elsa James n response to Black Lives Matter, as part of a festival celebrating black culture in Essex; My name is not Refugee, an Arts Council Collection exhibition 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.


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