How to choose a winner

The judges’ decision to award Art Fund Museum of the Year 2016 to the Victoria and Albert Museum derived from the convictions of a group, rather than from a strategy, says Stephen Deuchar in his Art Quarterly column.

I think I can say with some confidence that Art Fund Museum of the Year has become one of the most significant events in the annual UK museums calendar. After a selection process by jury that begins each winter, a shortlist of finalist museums is revealed in spring, with the winner chosen one summer morning just hours before its announcement at an awards ceremony in London.

The 2016 prize was won by the Victoria and Albert Museum and presented by the Duchess of Cambridge at the Natural History Museum on 6 July, attracting considerable national interest – and not just for the glamour of its star guest. A gladiatorial contest – in the arts sphere the Turner Prize, the Booker and the Stirling are obvious points of comparison – can be irresistibly fascinating for onlookers, especially when the outcome is so difficult to forecast, resting as it does solely in the hands of a small number of very independent-minded individuals.

What makes the Museum of the Year still less predictable is that the shortlist so often includes museums of vastly varying size, wealth, type and purpose, making it not just difficult but positively unhelpful for the judges to use a single set of criteria to judge the merits of each. Instead, each year we try to ask ourselves one central, deceptively simple question: how well and how innovatively does each museum do what it does? And each judge is asked to answer that question as much from the heart as from the head, speaking with conviction and honest subjectivity rather than through some attempt at neutral objectivity. And the museum that ‘does what it does’ almost as cleverly as we can imagine it being done… will become that year’s winner.

Making a decision

In my view, it is precisely because no weight is given to what might be called political considerations that the outcome of the contest is so unpredictable and so fascinating. Those observers who might claim that, for example, a London winner one year would invariably guarantee a regional winner in the year following are simply mistaken, as are those who say that if a small museum wins one year it improves the chances of the big museums the next, or that two Scottish winners, or two national museums, or two natural history museums, and so on, could never happen in successive years.

Each year has a different group of judges, which means that a new set of likes, dislikes and prejudices is brought to bear on the decision. Those decisions are therefore predictably diverse, sometimes said by knowing observers to be ‘obvious’ (as when the British Museum won for its ‘History of the World’ project in 2011) or ‘overdue’ (the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2014) or even ‘politically correct’ (the Ulster Museum in 2010) but they are actually the result of nothing but the uncalculated beliefs of the individual, expert judges concerned.

Notwithstanding what I like to think of as the actual purity of this process, it was not entirely unexpected to hear expressions of surprise from some quarters that the mighty V&A should have won this year. Evidently it had been assumed that its privileged location and formidable resource would, in a post-referendum climate in which London’s complacency had been rocked by the clear sound of dissatisfaction from many less privileged national quarters, effectively scupper its chances of the prize this year. But the playing field was in fact scrupulously level. As the judges had simply been asked to vote for whichever museum’s efforts they had personally admired most – and not to be driven by what they merely thought might be a popular decision – we could conduct a truly open discussion when we assembled on the morning of 6 July to choose the winner.

Although I cannot betray any confidences about details of that discussion (by judges Gus Casely-Hayford, Will Gompertz, Ludmilla Jordanova and Cornelia Parker), I will say that the decision did not arrive quickly. The fundamental difficulty of agreeing a verdict in this instance was that we had been so evenly impressed by what we had seen on our group visits to all five museums in the preceding weeks. It would have been so much simpler if some hierarchy of preference had begun to emerge by the time we sat down (as had sometimes been the case in previous years) but instead we found ourselves rather unexpectedly agreeing – and I say this not as a platitude but as a matter of record – that all five were still as strong contenders for the win as they had been when first shortlisted.

Reviewing the shortlist

With the grand ceremony just hours away this was not an entirely comfortable situation for the judges’ chairman. We recapped. At Arnolfini we had witnessed a famous contemporary gallery radically refocused on its role as a cultural lynchpin in the regeneration and reinvigoration of Bristol’s harbourside; it had youthful audiences and a strong exhibition programme. At the Bethlem Museum of the Mind’s beautiful new home we’d seen moving displays touching on a near-800- year history of psychiatric care and recovery, powerfully conceived, reaching out far beyond conventional museum demographics.

At Jupiter Artland we’d experienced an idyllic contemporary sculpture park dedicated to a zealous mission to bring art to every schoolchild in Scotland, and thousands more besides. At York we’d admired a triumphant architectural and curatorial transformation of a great and important art gallery, serving international as well as local audiences, imaginatively re-equipped for the 21st century. In all these instances we felt that in practically all respects they had done things about as brilliantly as they could be done. But in the case of the V&A – with the innovative curatorial underpinning of its exceptional 2015 exhibitions (such as ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ and ‘The Fabric of India’ and new displays (notably the Europe 1600-1815 galleries) and the expansion of its audiences in terms of reach, make-up and numbers too – we concluded that they could scarcely have been done better.

Accomplishment of that kind, exemplary public service in that degree of originality and creativity, certainly deserved to be recognised and rewarded. But the decision to do so was driven not by any sense of obligation. It was a close decision, it is true, but it was a pure and personal one. The principles for selecting future winners will remain resolutely the same. We hope to announce the names of the 2017 judges shortly.

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This article appears in Art Quarterly's autumn 2016 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass.

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