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The Art Fund Museum of the Year Winners 2020 have been announced

It’s been a topsy turvy year for the museum sector but for the 5 winners of this year’s prize there is something to celebrate in 2020.

Five museums shared £200,000 in prize money as this year’s winners of the Art Fund Museum of the Year. Aberdeen Art Gallery, Gairlock Museum, Science Museum, South London Gallery and Towner Eastbourne added a silver lining to a year like no other this month. As the largest arts award in Britain and the most prestigious museum award in the world, Art Fund met the unique challenges of 2020 by increasing the prize money by 40% and sharing the award among 5 worthy winners.

All five winners were involved in the staging of digital events and activities throughout a week of celebration from the 12th October to 16th October, specially coinciding with the BBC Art’s #museumpassion season. Events included storytelling by Outlander star Sam Heughan, a panel discussion on art and sustainability chaired by David Dimbleby and featuring Caroline Lucas, a live archaeological dig, and a museum mindfulness retreat.

This year’s award winners were found to have accomplished exceptional achievements during 2019 – 2020, including: bringing art to local audiences, moving to a repurposed nuclear bunker, redisplaying collections through major refurbishment, making museums a community hub, opening new permanent galleries and championing under-represented artists.

Art Fund Director, Jenny Waldman said of this year’s champions,

“The winners are exceptional examples of museums offering inspiration, reflection and joy in the heart of communities. The UK’s museums – admired worldwide and vital locally – were thriving before Covid-19. They can help rebuild our communities and confidence as we emerge from the virus. But they face financial peril.”

She continued:

“Not only do we need sustained investment from government, but we encourage everyone to go and explore their local museum – they need our support now.”

Judges Jago Cooper (Curator of the Americas, The British Museum), Dame Liz Forgan (Trustee, Art Fund), Ryan Gander (artist), Melanie Keen (Director, The Wellcome Collection) and Jenny Waldman (Director, Art Fund), chose the museums from among a wealth of worthy entrants, citing a number of key achievements from each of the winners.

Aberdeen Art Gallery

For Aberdeen Art Gallery Aberdeen Art Gallery, 2019 marked the culmination of the most ambitious redevelopment project in the museum’s 135-year history, completely re-imagining the gallery so its extraordinary treasures, and the stories they tell can be celebrated, shared and better understood.

The judges were impressed with the scale and ambition of this project, which increased the number of works on show from 370 to 1080, the beautifully executed restoration, and the commitment to involve the people of the city in the future of this rediscovered jewel on their doorstep.

Gairloch Museum

Nestled on the remote north-westerly coast of Scotland, Gairloch Museum captivated the judges with its demonstration of people-power, determination, and local pride. The museum’s move in 2019 to a new home – not a grand new build but a repurposed nuclear bunker – transformed a village eyesore into an important visitor attraction. It was the culmination of an 8-year, £2.4 million redevelopment project realised by this community and more than 120 volunteers.

The redisplay of the museum’s collection which encapsulates the history, culture, beauty and character of Gairloch and its new home is said to have reanimated the village’s pride in its heritage, created a buzzing new community hub, and produced a sustainable cultural landmark for generations of visitors to enjoy.

Science Museum

As one of the most popular museums in London, the Science Museum has been enjoyed by millions of visitors since it was founded more than 150 years ago. But in the last decade it has undergone a profound transformation –thinking big, thinking local, and thinking radically. 2019 was a landmark year which saw the museum inspire the next generation of scientists with the culmination of Tim Peake’s spacecraft nationwide tour, its biggest ever sleepover to mark the Apollo 11 anniversary, and the opening of two exceptional new permanent galleries – Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries and Science City 1550-1800: The Linbury Gallery.

The judges recognised the shift-change that had taken place in this well-known and much respected institution, not only in its spaces, but also in its relationship with its visitors and local communities. The museum has become the world’s leading destination for people to be excited, inspired and delighted by science.

South London Gallery

South London Gallery is a world-class contemporary art space, built for and with its culturally diverse communities. Over more than 125 years it has stayed true to its aim, ‘to bring art to the people of south London’, evolving in response to the needs of artists and audiences and promoting inclusion at the heart of its mission.

Alongside delivering an exciting programme of exhibitions and events, and a highly regarded free education programme, 2019 was a vitally important year for the gallery – the first since it doubled in size through the opening of a neighbouring site in an elegantly converted former Fire Station.

The judges were impressed by the gallery’s integrity, creativity and inspiring leadership.

Towner Eastbourne

A highly regarded art gallery on the East Sussex coast, Towner Eastbourne has been collecting and exhibiting contemporary art for almost 100 years. Despite a funding cut Towner has redefined its purpose as a free and open community resource and launched a new vision to transform communities through art. 2019 marked the tenth birthday celebration of its ‘new’ building, and a dynamic fresh phase for the gallery, increasing its profile, securing financial sustainability and truly serving the needs of its intergenerational and diverse communities.

The judges admired Towner Eastbourne’s genuine commitment to promoting under-represented artists in its programme, and its newly cemented status as an invaluable asset to Eastbourne.

What they said

Christine Rew, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Manager, said:

“Covid-19 abruptly interrupted the fantastic momentum built since the revitalised Art Gallery re-opened. We welcomed over 100,000 visitors in 100 days and then suddenly, we were closed again. Being Art Fund Museum of the Year winner is the best ‘welcome back’ present imaginable.

“The award will help us make a difference to the lives of artists and audiences. We have so much to share with visitors including introducing them to a new generation of exciting contemporary artists when the British Art Show comes to Aberdeen next summer. Prior to our redevelopment we couldn’t have hosted such an ambitious exhibition; now the whole exhibition will be seen in the Gallery’s spectacular new spaces.”

Karen Buchanan, Curator of Gairloch Museum, said:

“The recognition that comes with this award brings our small, independent museum to the national stage. With the prize money, we will be able to invest in our planned outdoor museum space and procure expertise and equipment to redesign our events and outreach programme for a sustainable, digital future. We rely on tourism to our small community and expect our Art Fund Museum of the Year status to boost visitor numbers. Our must-see event for 2021 will be an exhibition of the art of Alison Dunlop RSW, celebrating the rugged beauty of the Shiants – the enchanted isles of the Minch.”

Sir Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, said:

“The last decade has seen a radical transformation of the Science Museum, culminating in the opening of Science City 1550 – 1800: The Linbury Gallery and Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries to critical acclaim last year. So, it means a great deal to have this achievement acknowledged by this magnificent prize. Our museums are at the heart of national cultural life and, particularly during this time of uncertainty, provide solace, inspiration and joy to so many.

“We’ll be using the prize money to support local school children from communities that aren’t able to currently visit the museum with special outreach sessions, so that we continue to inspire futures beyond our museum walls.”

Margot Heller, Director of South London Gallery, said:

“We hope this endorsement will entice people from across the UK and beyond to visit the SLG. We have a great reputation among those who know us, but there is huge potential to grow. There are plenty of reasons to visit – from Bloomberg New Contemporaries (December) to solo shows by the American painter Christina Quarles and London-based Rita Keegan (spring 2021).

“September 2021 will be the fifth anniversary of our beautiful garden designed by Gabriel Orozco. The financial insecurity brought by lockdown has forced us to find new ways to connect with local schools and families. The award will allow us to continue our existing programmes, as well offering us the chance to commission an exciting new work.”

Joe Hill, Director of Towner Eastbourne, said:

“It’s been a privilege to lead the Towner Eastbourne since 2018 and to work with colleagues and partners to develop Towner into a community hub for art and culture at the heart of Eastbourne. In 2019, we marked the tenth anniversary in our current building by celebrating the impact that the arts can have on a place.

“In the current unprecedented circumstances, we are proud to have continued to deliver a wide-ranging programme. As we look ahead, I am excited to begin planning our centenary programme for 2023, using this award to ensure we develop a celebration for the people of Sussex and a programme for all ages taking place across our town.”

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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