Getting the picture
The Museum of the Year Award has, at last, eclipsed the Turner Prize. The search for the next winner began this week, and the BBC is putting it on both TV and radio. It’s not just the £100,000 first prize as opposed to the Turner’s £25,000 that gives it the edge; it’s actually more interesting, and while this year’s Turner winner couldn’t have been more worthy, Lubaina Himid had had a couple of very successful and well-publicised exhibitions this year and, having been around for decades, was suddenly in the eye of the public as well as of the critic. So no-one was surprised when she won.
By contrast the winner of the Museum of the Year Award, these days funded and organised by the Art Fund, is very hard to predict. The Hepworth Wakefield had it in 2017, but it could easily have been the exquisite Sir John Soane Museum, the National Horseracing Centre or even the little Lapworth Geological Museum. The smart money was on Tate Modern for the great corkscrew extension at first called interestingly The Switch House but now given the unlovely name of the Blavatnik Building for obvious reasons. The point is that any museum, from the largest to the tiniest, can win: it depends on how innovative its work has been in the preceding year, and its public impact.
When this manifestation of the Museum of the Year Award began in 2003 its devisers had been determined to make it the biggest financial prize so that it could make a serious difference to an institution of any dimension, and no-one could turn their nose up at it. It was also decided - after a hot discussion – that applicants need not detail what the money would be spent on, the point being that they would have won through merit, not intention.
It had to be properly democratic and museums from the diminutive Lightbox in Woking to the V&A in 2016 have won it – the V&A used the money to revive its old Circulation Department, taking examples of historical design around the country in travelling exhibitions. It probably saved the Wedgwood Museum in 2009, not so much because of the money as that it underlined the collection’s importance.
While that element works to an extent, national museums’ pastoral duty which is constantly being dinned into them by the government is only partly met by the nationals themselves. They do lend, but only according to their own requirements and schedules, under their own conditions, and at their own expense of course. Tate started Artist Rooms, taking the work of truly big names like Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys and Ed Ruscha to regional venues, thanks to the generous deal with the collector Anthony D’Offay and the partnership with the National Gallery of Scotland – a fantastic initiative, but not an imparting of the national collection to the nation. Whole national exhibitions never get a regional showing, which makes the V&A initiative so rare.
Now the Art Fund - which once had been expected to ditch the MotY but has seen its potential, and used ingenuity (and money) to build its efficacy and the fund’s prestige, successful in both - has produced another innovation which could change the whole order again.
Really important work can now be seen in small places around the country – as good as Rembrandt’s An Elderly Mab as Saint Paul from the National Gallery, the V&A’s medieval Becket Casket or the NPG’s Lucian Freud self-portrait. The point is not that the parent institutions would not lend the things when asked, it was that the borrowing venues couldn’t afford the costs of travel, insurance and marketing. With the Garfield Weston Foundation the fund has made a £750,000 fund to which museums and galleries around the country can apply – they can now take the initiative and ask for the object they want rather than wait for something to be offered, something that may not suit what they want to do. Although this is not part of the MotY scheme, it is a further democratising of our museum population. The Rembrandt will be seen in the Cannon Hall Museum in Barnsley next year, the Freud in Rugby Art Gallery, the casket in Peterborough Museum.
The next move could be the shifting of the funding national museums and galleries from DCMS to the Arts Council, making them part of a properly integrated national funding policy in which local museums, grievously beset by cuts in local authority funding as they are, can feel they’re getting a more equitable crack of the whip. Not much the Art Fund can do about that, though.