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marking 10 years of the Art Fund Museum of the Year award

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It’s the tenth year of the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year – but the awards for UK museums have a much longer history. An annual prize has been held for 50 years, ever since a small charity called National Heritage (not to be confused with the many groups that have similar names) launched a prize, which awarded the winner £2,000 and a statuette designed by Henry Moore.

At the turn of the millennium, it was felt that something more substantial was needed. National Heritage joined Art Fund, Association of Museums and Campaign for Museums; several smaller museum prizes were merged into one, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation offered a first prize of £100,000, one of the most generous art prizes in the world. As David Barrie, then director of Art Fund, told the Guardian in 2007: “It’s important…that the prize be a fairly decent sum of money, which can help make something great, not just a knick-knack to sit on the mantel.”

The award went through several more iterations before being relaunched as Art Fund Museum of the Year in 2013, but its first substantial award remained. Indeed, this year it has been raised to £120,000 to mark 120 years of Art Fund support for museums. The other four shortlisted finalists will receive £15,000 each.

Money makes a huge difference. Hadrian Garrard, newly appointed
director of the first winner, William Morris Gallery in north-east London, says: “Winning the prize in 2013, just after [the museum] had undergone a major redevelopment, brought recognition to the many people who work here – our volunteers, supporters and local communities – at a crucial time for us. This has allowed us to invest in initiatives that have helped secure the gallery’s long-term future. Over the past ten years, we have built on this success and grown our audience locally, nationally and globally. »

Exposure is also vital, says Art Fund director Jenny Waldman, boosted by the marketing power of the fund and its 135,000 members. Recent research by the charity found that two-thirds of museums shortlisted over the past 10 years have seen higher visitor numbers, which is crucial as UK museums struggle to recover from the impact of the pandemic. For example, St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff, 2019 winner, reported a 65% increase in visitors, while The Hepworth Wakefield (2017 winner) saw 22% more. CCA Derry~Londonderry (shortlisted in 2021) is now name-checked in city tours, where it was previously ignored.

“It’s a tribute to them for taking advantage of the opportunity to be shortlisted to sing about themselves locally, regionally and nationally,” says Waldman, “It’s a way for people to experience museums that they didn’t even know in the heart of their communities.”

More visitors also help museums when applying for funding, whether from central government, the Arts Council, local councils or universities, says Waldman. Garrard agrees, saying the William Morris Gallery, which won the award, helped secure “continued commitment” from Waltham Forest, the London borough that owns and operates the museum.

Of course, different museums have different needs. As every year, the shortlisted museums in 2023 span the length and breadth of the UK and vary widely in size and scope. How do you compare apples (the Natural History Museum, the UK’s most visited museum last year) with oranges (the tiny Scapa Flow museum in remote Orkney)?

“It’s remarkably not a problem,” says Waldman. “You’re looking for the same kind of creativity, invention, ideas, passion, energy, commitment and commitment to community, supporters and artists… You get that, whether it’s big , small or medium scale, whether it is an art museum, a history museum or an art center.You can simply recognize what is special in museums, wherever they are and whatever their scale.

The winner of the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2023 will be announced on July 12 at a ceremony at the British Museum

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