“The most prestigious museum award in the world,” whose past winners include the British Museum (2011), Victoria & Albert Museum (2016) and Tate St Ives (2018), has decided during these trying pandemic times, the award needed to be split five ways.
“The largest arts award in Britain and the most prestigious museum award in the world,” awarded by the Art Fund, was shared equally among five museums this year. The £200,000 prize, split as £40,000 ($52,000) per museum, is a first for the fund.
“The outstanding museums are recognised for their achievements in 2019 – 20: from bringing art to local audiences, moving to a repurposed nuclear bunker, redisplaying collections through major refurbishment, making museums a community hub, opening new permanent galleries and championing under-represented artists,” press materials say.
“The winners are exceptional examples of museums offering inspiration, reflection and joy in the heart of communities. The UK’s museums - admired worldwide and vital locally - were thriving before Covid-19. They can help rebuild our communities and confidence as we emerge from the virus,”Jenny Waldman, Director, Art Fund, says. “But they face financial peril. Not only do we need sustained investment from [the] government, but we encourage everyone to go and explore their local museum – they need our support now.”
The judges comprised Jago Cooper (Curator of the Americas, The British Museum), Dame Liz Forgan (Trustee, Art Fund), Ryan Gander (artist), Melanie Keen (Director, The Wellcome Collection) and Jenny Waldman (Director, Art Fund).
The winners are: Aberdeen Art Gallery (Aberdeen, Scotland), Gairloch Museum (Gairloch, Scotland), Science Museum (London, England), South London Gallery (London, England), Towner Eastbourne (Eastbourne, England).
In 2019, the prize money was broken down as: £100,000 ($130,000) for the winner and £10,000 ($13,000) each for four shortlisted museums, totalling £140,000 ($182,000). This year, the total was increased by £60,000 (a 42.85% increase) to £200,000 ($260,000) and the award was split equally among the five museums.
Aberdeen Art Gallery (Aberdeen, Scotland)
The gallery is “home to one of the finest collections in [the UK].” Its collection spans over 700 years and for over 130 years the Aberdeen Art Gallery has been “acquiring the best and most interesting contemporary artworks.” It is a Recognised Collection of National Significance, located in Aberdeen, Scotland, in an 1885 building designed by Alexander Marshall Mackenzie.
“The judges were impressed with the scale and ambition of [completely re-imagining the gallery], which increased the number of works on show from 370 to 1080, the beautifully executed restoration, and the commitment to involve the people of the city in the future of this rediscovered jewel on their doorstep,” press materials say. “They looked forward to seeing what the next 100-years would bring.”
Gairloch Museum (Gairloch, Scotland)
Operating since 1977, the Gairloch Museum initially served to house “the growing collection of artefacts donated by local people for which a permanent home was clearly needed.” They received national accreditation in 2009 in recognition of “high standards in the delivery of museum services.”
From 2011 to 2017 the museum raised funds to relocate as their lease was expiring. They ended up moving in 2019 to “a historic Anti-aircraft Operations Room (AAOR), constructed during the early years of the Cold War (c.1952-3) to help defend the country against low-flying Russian planes carrying atomic bombs.” They quote a donor as having written, “This project has transformed the ugliest and most neglected building in Gairloch into its greatest attraction.”
Science Museum (London, England)
“Our museums are at the heart of national cultural life and, particularly during this time of uncertainty, provide solace, inspiration and joy to so many,” says Sir Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.
“We’ll be using the prize money to support local school children from communities that aren’t able to currently visit the museum with special outreach sessions, so that we continue to inspire futures beyond our museum walls.”
“The judges recognised the shift-change that had taken place in this well-known and much respected institution, not only in its spaces, but also in its relationship with its visitors and local communities. The museum has become the world's leading destination for people to be excited, inspired and delighted by science,” press materials reflect.
South London Gallery (London, England)
The South London Gallery aims to present new work by British and international artists, “often by those who have rarely or never had a solo show in a London institution.” Their website says “Group shows bring together works by established and lesser-known British and international artists, whilst an ongoing residency programme provides opportunities for artists to develop new work and exhibit at the SLG.”
It is a registered charity and entrance is free for all. SLG “was established on its current site in 1891 by philanthropist William Rossiter to ‘bring art to the people of south London’,” with additional spaces and gardens for children and families.
Towner Eastbourne (Eastbourne, England)
“Through 2020, a year which has been notably difficult for everyone globally, we are proud to have continued to deliver a wide-ranging programme for our audiences during these unprecedented circumstances,” says David Dimbleby, Chairman, Towner Eastbourne.
“As we look ahead, I am excited to begin planning our centenary programme for 2023, using this award to ensure we develop a moment of celebration for the people of Sussex and a programme for all ages, taking place across our town and not just inside the gallery walls.”
A museum with free admission, Towner Eastbourne was established in 1923, “collecting and exhibiting contemporary art for nearly 100 years.” It presents “an ambitious and high quality programme of historic, modern and contemporary art through temporary and collection based exhibitions, talks, events and creative activities for as many as 160,000 visitors each year.”
Thumbnail photo: Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020, South London Gallery. Headline photo: Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020, Gairloch Museum. Photos by Marc Atkins (Courtesy of Art Fund)