On judging Museum of the Year

Settling on the shortlist for the 2015 Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year proved a surprisingly
harmonious exercise, but judging such awards will always involve subjective choices, writes our director.

Helped along by strong interest from the BBC, April’s announcement of the shortlist for the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2015 (pictured) has elicited much attention and discussion. What, people have asked, does the shortlist ‘say’ about the state of museums in the UK at present? When I was director of Tate Britain, I used to be asked annually what the latest Turner Prize shortlist ‘said’ about the state of contemporary art. But in both instances the answer – in my view, at least – is that a shortlist should rarely be seen as an indicator of any overall trend, but is rather a reflection and expression of the current likes, dislikes and prejudices of the individuals who drew it up.

This year’s Art Fund Prize judges are Michael Landy, Alice Rawsthorn, Fiammetta Rocco and Axel Rüger. Our shortlisting meeting was definitely a spirited occasion. An impressive range of UK museums of all kinds and sizes had submitted applications, each including a five-minute film or other visual presentation, so there was ample information for us to consider and no shortage of material for us to love or hate. In the end, these things are deeply personal. Some experts have an aversion to too much in-gallery interpretation; others cannot get enough. For some, the architecture of a museum is the most important thing about it; for others, it is merely a distraction from the collection. There is infinite room, in fact, for disagreement on more or less all museological principles. How remarkable, then, that we found ourselves agreeing that the six best museums of the moment were these six. And I have a feeling that, notwithstanding the unapologetic subjectivity of our process, and our belief that we should each speak from the heart, our choice might even be a reasonable reflection of current public opinion. I look forward to hearing more of that over the coming weeks as decision day – 1 July – approaches.

Meanwhile, my fellow judges and I are on the road together, visiting each of the six museums, meeting their directors and curators and making our assessments at first hand. During the course of last year’s Prize, I tried to bring to public attention the sheer quality of leadership apparent in all the institutions on the shortlist, curatorial flair and strategic nous working broadly and happily hand in hand. I’m pleased to report finding much of the same again evident among this year’s group, reinforcing my sense that by and large the UK is being very well served by those at the top of the museum world.

A new generation of curators

Beyond the Prize, it’s also refreshing to be meeting some curators at much earlier stages in their career. I have often voiced concerns about the health of the profession in the face of relentless funding cuts, especially among local-authority museums. But the interviews we conducted recently for our New Collecting Awards programme, in which 12 young curators set out their personal plans and ambitions to develop the collections in their care, were a revelation. Twelve interviewees gave 12 persuasive presentations, and it was only with immense difficulty that we finally selected five to receive awards. If that were an accurate litmus test, curatorially speaking, I can conclude with some certainty that Britain’s got talent.

Securing the Minton Archive

In the spring issue of Art Quarterly I dared express the hope that a solution might soon be found to the problem of the Minton Archive – how to rescue an industrial archive of major national importance from the store room of an auction house, where much of it had lain neglected, but under threat of sale and dispersal, for several years.

In the event, that solution materialised very quickly indeed – under pressure of a strict deadline set by Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton, the owners of the Archive, who had asked us whether we would be able to complete a deal to purchase it from them by 31 March. We expressed the strong wish to try, and entered into negotiations on two fronts in parallel.

First, we needed to find the money: £1.56m. Our immediate port of call was Carole Souter and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, who – characteristically – responded magnificently, pledging £1.16m if we could raise the rest. Next we approached some of those trusts, foundations and individuals who had helped us acquire the Wedgwood Collection only a few months previously: I would like to thank The Pilgrim Trust, the Bamford Charitable Foundation, the bet365 Foundation, the William A Cadbury Charitable Trust, Sir Siegmund Warburg’s Voluntary Settlement, the J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust and Staffordshire County Council in particular for responding with such speed and generosity.

Our second task was to find a suitable permanent owner for the collection; for though we were planning to buy it we wanted to pass it immediately into the care of a public museum or record office. It very quickly became apparent that Stoke-on-Trent City Archives would make an ideal recipient, enthusiastically supported by its sibling institution, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. A four-way conversation between the Archives, the Potteries, the Wedgwood Museum at Barlaston and ourselves produced a viable forward plan which promises to ensure that the Minton Archive will be properly cared for in public ownership, in perpetuity, and exhibited in a number of different and imaginative contexts into the future.

The deal was finally done on the afternoon of the 31st, very much at the eleventh hour. The Art Fund is, as ever, hugely grateful to all those individuals and institutions who step forward to help us in urgent and important instances such as this, when there is not enough time available to mount a public appeal. These include not just our financial supporters, but those who offer critical advice, guidance and information. In this respect I’d especially like to acknowledge the diverse roles of Mark Oliver of Bonhams, former Royal Doulton and Minton archivist Les Smith, James Leavesley, James Joll and Martin Levy in helping us towards a happy conclusion in this, the long-running affair of the Minton Archive.

This article appears in Art Quarterly's summer 2015 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass and become a member.

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