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Museum of the Year awarded to Essex art gallery which transformed to help community during COVID-19 pandemic

Written by on 23 September 2021

A gallery in Essex which transformed to help distribute food to the vulnerable and gave out free school meals has been awarded the title of Museum of the Year.

Firstsite art gallery in Colchester bagged the award at a ceremony in London, crowning off the venue’s tenth anniversary.

The modern arts organisation displays a mix of historic and contemporary art from around the world, and has a focus on building relationships with artists and the local community.

Sally Shaw (left), director of Firstsite, winner of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021, with Nadine Dorries, Culture Secretary, at the award ceremony at the Science Museum in London Image: Sally Shaw (L), director of Firstsite with Nadine Dorries, culture secretary at the award ceremony

Neighbouring charity Community 360 used the building during the pandemic, and repurposed it as a base from which to deliver food and supplies to vulnerable people in the local area.

And, with the charity African Families, the gallery turned its restaurant into a school canteen and offered free school meals during the holidays.

It also led The Great Big Art Exhibition during lockdown, which encouraged people to show art in their windows, and produced activity packs featuring more than 50 artists which were downloaded by more than 92,000 families.

If all that wasn’t enough, it has also worked on an NHS art project, Art for Life, which it hopes will help others to understand the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and refugees.

The gallery beat competition from four other venues – Centre for Contemporary Art Derry/Londonderry, Experience Barnsley, Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds and Timespan in Helmsdale, Sutherland – to secure the award.

Handing out the £100,000 award at London’s Science Museum, the chairwoman of the award’s judging panel, Jenny Waldman, said: “We’re proud to announce Firstsite in Colchester as Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021.

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“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.”