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Museums of the year: Art Fund names five joint winners of UK’s biggest arts prize

Aberdeen Art Gallery, Gairloch Museum, the Science Museum, South London Gallery and Towner Eastbourne will share £200,000 award

Towner Eastbourne on England's south coast Photo: Marc Atkins

From a converted nuclear bunker in a remote village to a high-tech UK national museum, the five joint winners of the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020 award have been revealed. In a BBC television broadcast this evening, the artist Grayson Perry announced that Aberdeen Art Gallery, Gairloch Museum, the Science Museum, South London Gallery and Towner Eastbourne will share this year’s increased £200,000 prize money equally.

The Art Fund charity changed the format of the prize—the UK’s biggest arts award—this summer in response to the “unprecedented challenges” of the coronavirus crisis. Previous winners including the Hepworth Wakefield in 2017, Tate St Ives in 2018 and St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff last year received £100,000, while four shortlisted finalists took £10,000 each.

This year’s chosen five are “exceptional examples of museums offering inspiration, reflection and joy in the heart of communities”, says Jenny Waldman, the director of Art Fund, in a statement. UK museums “can help rebuild our communities and confidence as we emerge from the virus”, she says, if they can recover from the “financial peril” wrought by the lockdown earlier this year. “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.”

Waldman made the selection together with the judges Jago Cooper, the British Museum’s curator of the Americas; the artist Ryan Gander; Melanie Keen, the director of the Wellcome Collection; and chair of the panel, Liz Forgan, a former journalist and trustee of the Art Fund.

Aberdeen Art Gallery reopened after a £35m refurbishment last November Photo: Marc Atkins

Aberdeen Art Gallery is celebrated for its triumphant £35m refurbishment last November, which increased the number of works on display from 370 to 1,080. “We welcomed over 100,000 visitors in 100 days and then suddenly, we were closed again,” says Christine Rew, the gallery and museums manager for Aberdeen City Council. Having reopened in late August after a five-month shutdown, the Museum of the Year award is “the best ‘welcome back’ present imaginable”, she says.

Inside the Gairloch Museum, housed in a repurposed Cold War-era bunker Photo: Marc Atkins

In the remote northwest Scottish highlands, the community-led Gairloch Museum won for its own ambitious transformation, repurposing a semi-derelict Cold War bunker into a new building for its collection of locally donated artefacts. Forced to move by an expiring lease and funding cuts, the museum realised the £2.4m redevelopment with the help of 120 local volunteers. Curator Karen Buchanan says the prize money will support a new outdoor space and the “expertise and equipment to redesign our events and outreach programme for a sustainable, digital future”.

South London Gallery is currently showing immersive environments by Ann Veronica Janssens Photo: Marc Atkins

Having displayed contemporary art for 97 and 129 years respectively, Towner Eastbourne on England’s south coast and the South London Gallery (SLG) were both recognised as free art spaces serving diverse communities. According to Margot Heller, the SLG’s director, the Museum of the Year award will fund a new art commission and ensure that education programmes continue despite the “financial insecurity brought by lockdown”. Towner’s director, Joe Hill, says the gallery’s prize winnings will be channelled into its 2023 centenary celebrations.

Both galleries were also named today as beneficiaries of the UK government’s £1.57bn emergency funding package helping arts organisations to survive the pandemic, with Towner receiving a grant of £140,500 and the South London Gallery £387,588.

The Science Museum in London Photo: Marc Atkins

By far the largest of the Art Fund’s museums of the year, the national Science Museum in London is also planning to spend its prize money on supporting local audiences. The museum, which partnered with Samsung to tour astronaut Tim Peake’s spacecraft around the UK in 2017-19 and launched two new permanent galleries last year, will offer outreach sessions to “local school children from communities that aren’t able to currently visit the museum”, says Ian Blatchford, the director of the Science Museum Group, “so that we continue to inspire futures beyond our museum walls”.

Jenny Waldman and all five of the museum leaders will take part in an online panel discussion moderated by The Art Newspaper’s review editor and podcast host, Ben Luke, at 11am on 13 October, exploring the challenges and innovations of museums in 2020.

  • The Art Newspaper is the official media partner for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020 award
  • Register for the Zoom webinar event “Meet the winners: Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020” here or watch the livestream on the Art Fund YouTube channel