Colchester’s Firstsite was announced as Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021 last night (21 September 2021), with Director, Sally Shaw MBE presented with the £100,000 prize – the largest museum prize in the world – by broadcaster Edith Bowman at a ceremony in the spectacular setting of the Science Museum, London.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Firstsite is a contemporary arts organisation showing a diverse mix of historic, modern and contemporary art from around the world. It has built a strong, critical reputation nurturing long and deep relationships with artists and the local community. Throughout the pandemic, Sally and her team mobilised at speed to support local people, lending the building to neighbouring charity, Community 360 to run a food bank. Within days of lockdown, Firstsite created activity packs, featuring contributions from over fifty artists and were downloaded by over 92,000 households.
During this time, Firstsite also continued to provide its ground-breaking Holiday Fun programme, providing local free creative activities, sport and physical exercise sessions and over 6,000 freshly-cooked meals to local children and families in Colchester and Harwich, prompting the award ceremony’s host John Wilson, to describe Firstsite as “the Marcus Rashford of museums” during the live broadcast on Radio 4’s Front Row.
Firstsite also led on The Great Big Art Exhibition, encouraging people to display their own art in their windows during lockdown, to create a nationwide gallery, and Michael Landy’s Welcome to Essex exhibition was enjoyed by thousands of visitors this summer.
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 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.
Expressing her surprise and delight upon hearing the announcement of their success, Firstsite Director Sally Shaw MBE said: “Everyone at Firstsite was absolutely thrilled just to be on the shortlist, so, to actually be awarded the prestigious Art Fund Museum of the Year prize is just amazing. It is testimony to all the Firstsite team, our board of trustees and, of course, the artists and community groups who have worked with us over the past 18 months; their determination and passion to help us reach out across the barriers created by COVID and create a sense of community through art has been incredible.”
She added: “It is also recognition for our various partners and funders, plus the communities and visitors we serve, who all make Firstsite such a vibrant, welcoming and essential place to be. So, on behalf of everyone connected to Firstsite, a huge thank you to the judges for this wonderful prize. Not least, because it will enable us to continue working closely with the people of Colchester and the surrounding areas on more fantastic projects, creating platforms and visibility for those who are the most overlooked and under-valued to have their say. This prize will help us achieve so much! It will help us reach even more local children and give them regular opportunities to be creative, active and well-nourished when they’re not at school. It will also help us maintain our ongoing commitment to artists, supporting them to continue to create projects which challenge us all and help us to think differently. Everything we do at Firstsite is geared towards fuelling imaginations – imagination is essential to forming successful, happy and resilient communities. This award will help us fire the imaginations of so many more people and empower communities to find solutions to the many challenges that now lay before us in this post-pandemic world.”
Firstsite was one of five finalists. The other shortlisted museums were: Centre for Contemporary Art Derry~Londonderry (Derry~Londonderry, Northern Ireland), Experience Barnsley (Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England), Thackray Museum of Medicine (Leeds, West Yorkshire, England) and Timespan (Helmsdale, Sutherland, Scotland).
Each of the other finalist museums receives a £15,000 prize in recognition of their achievements.