Firstsite wins Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021

Firstsite in Colchester is announced as the winner of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021 at a ceremony held at the Science Museum in London and hosted live on the BBC.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Firstsite is a contemporary arts organisation showing a diverse mix of historic, modern and contemporary art from around the world in an inclusive environment. It has built a strong, critical reputation nurturing long and deep relationships with artists and the local community.

During the pandemic it mobilised at speed to support local people, lending its building to neighbouring charity, Community 360, to run a food bank. Within days of lockdown, Firstsite created activity packs which went on to feature over 50 artists and were downloaded by over 92,000 households. The organisation led on The Great Big Art Exhibition which encouraged 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 over the 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 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.

Jenny Waldman, Art Fund director and chair of the judges for Art Fund Museum of the Year, said: ‘We’re proud to announce Firstsite in Colchester as Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021. From inspiring everyone to turn their windows into a nationwide gallery during lockdown to feeding local kids in the school holidays, they are an outstanding example of innovation and integrity. At their core is powerful, engaged contemporary art, housed in a gallery that gives space for everyone, from artists to NHS staff to local families and refugee groups. They exceeded all our expectations. Here is a small organisation thinking big and caring for their local community. Here is excellence in Essex.’

Fellow judge, Edith Bowman, said: ‘Museums and galleries are a portal to infinite creative avenues. I’ve had the real pleasure of visiting each one of the five finalists. Words fail me at what they’ve done with tiny teams and budgets. What Firstsite has achieved is mind-blowing.’

The winner 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.

The members of this year’s judging panel are: Maria Balshaw, director of Tate and chair of the National Museum Directors’ Council; Edith Bowman, broadcaster; Katrina Brown, director of The Common Guild; Art Fund trustee; Suhair Khan, strategic projects lead at Google, artist Thomas J Price and Jenny Waldman, director of Art Fund.

The news was announced in a live broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, BBC News Channel and BBC iPlayer, presented by John Wilson.

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