“Go Essex,” were Sally Shaw’s first words as she reacted to Firstsite winning the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award this week.
Shaw, the director of the Colchester contemporary art venue, was speaking at the awards ceremony at London's Science Museum. Firstsite triumphed over four other shortlisted museums: Centre for Contemporary Art, Derry-Londonderry; Experience Barnsley; Thackray Museum of Medicine, Leeds; and Timespan in Helmsdale, Sutherland.
“I have been at Firstsite for five years and it never ceases to surprise me every single day,” Shaw said. “We do two things at Firstsite – we work with some incredible artists and we work with some extraordinary communities.
“We bring lots of people together under our incredible gold, curved roof and we make and show extraordinary art. When we do this together, incredible things happen. We feel happier, we feel healthier and we find exceptional solutions to some of the biggest problems we are all facing.”
Firstsite, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, has had a troubled history. The £28m venue, designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly, was placed under special funding arrangements by Arts Council England in 2015 as it battled to deal with poor visitor figures and a growing financial deficit. But Shaw and her team have turned things around with a focus on being relevant and important to local communities.
Firstsite supported people during the pandemic by lending its building to the Community 360 charity to run a food bank. It also created activity packs that went on to feature 50-plus artists and were downloaded by more than 92,000 households.
The organisation led on The Great Big Art Exhibition, which encouraged people to display their own art in their windows. And in response to Black Lives Matter, the gallery commissioned Elsa James to make a downloadable We Stand With You poster and continued to support the Super Black festival, which celebrates celebrates African and Caribbean history and culture.
Shaw paid tribute to the people of Colchester in her acceptance speech. “Firstsite is your gallery, we are here to serve you,” she said.
Award presenter John Wilson described Firstsite as the “Marcus Rashford of museums” pointing to the fact that it had turned a lobster restaurant into a canteen serving free school meals. The BBC arts correspondent asked Shaw if she hoped that other museums would learn from Firstsite.
Shaw responded by pointing to the great work done by all the museums on the shortlist.
“Everyone should learn from all of these museums – they are all exceptional,” she said. “The best thing that could come out of Covid is that we are different permanently and we keep doing amazing things and changing things relentlessly, as things do need to change.”
Firstsite received £100,000 for winning the award, while each of the other finalists get £15,000.
The members of this year’s judging panel were Maria Balshaw, director of Tate and chair of the National Museum Directors’ Council; broadcaster Edith Bowman; Katrina Brown, director of The Common Guild; Suhair Khan, strategic projects lead at Google; artist Thomas J Price; and Art Fund director Jenny Waldman.