An inspiring acceptance speech for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2018 featured the following excerpt: “It is the first time a museum rooted in activism and equality has won this prestigious award. The decision sends an unequivocal message that inclusive approaches to collecting, governance and programming can result in innovative, exceptional and award-winning museums.”Unfortunately, it was not from the winner. Instead, it was by Glasgow Women’s Library, one of the five shortlisted organisations, which were asked to prepare acceptance speeches. In a spirit of openness, the women’s library published its speech online, alongside lots of other material associated with its bid.
The Art Fund Museum of the Year was, in fact, won by Tate St Ives. Its new extension is a clever architectural addition and has undoubtedly revitalised the Cornish gallery, but the result is a little underwhelming.
The decision to overlook an institution as ambitious and innovative as Glasgow Women’s Library should prompt the Art Fund to think again about the purpose, aims and structure of the prize.
One area to look at is geographical representation. Since the Art Fund took over the running of the prize in 2008, there have been 57 finalists: 46 from England, seven from Scotland and two each from Wales and Northern Ireland. The only non-English winner in the past 11 years was Ulster Museum in 2010.Another trend in recent years has been the success of art museums. The five winners before Tate St Ives were Hepworth Wakefield, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), Whitworth, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the William Morris Gallery.
The make-up of this year’s five-strong judging panel seemed to favour the visual arts – the panel comprised an artist, an arts correspondent, an Art Fund trustee and the director of the Art Fund, who used to work at Tate. The fifth judge was Ian Blatchford, the director of the Science Museum Group, who started his career at the Royal Academy of Arts and was at the V&A.
Prizes are difficult to run well and the Art Fund has done a great job of raising the profile of the Museum of the Year, creating something that the sector and the public can rally around. But times change and maybe it is time for the prize to change as well.
Simon Stephens, editor, Museums Journal