I told anyone who would listen that the Hepworth Museum in Wakefield would win this year's £100,000 Art Fund prize. Trouble is no one was listening. I cannot access the FT site for the piece I wrote in April but it went something like this:
What makes a museum a worthy winner of a £100,000 prize? A critically acclaimed exhibition, a new gallery full of light and space? That goes without saying. But how is it possible to compare, say, an internationally celebrated museum with more than three million visitors a year with one tucked away in an unremarkable suburb in south London which attracts a mere 12,000.
That is one of the challenges facing the judges of the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017 as they prepare to announce the shortlist next week (April 27); how to compare unlike with unlike.
When the Victoria and Albert (internationally celebrated museum) was revealed as the winner last year there was a distinct murmur among the arts world aristocracy gathered in the National History Museum to hear the result. The then MP Tristram Hunt was heard to express his surprise - perhaps not imagining that he would be appointed director of that very institution within a matter of months.
Some thought the extra cash would have been more beneficial to any one of the other museums on the shortlist, an eclectic quartet which ranged from the Bethlem Museum of the Mind (underdog from the London suburb), the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol with its bravura contemporary art shows, the sculpture park of Jupiter Artland, near Edinburgh or York Art Gallery, which had been transformed after a two year refurbishment but was struggling financially.
Artist Cornelia Parker, who was one of the four judges last year, admits it was a ‘really difficult job.’
“We had many discussions,” she says delicately. “One of our number suggested we all had big egos - which is fair enough - and it was so close fought that we did not make the decision until the day of the award ceremony. Because we could not agree we gave scores from one to five to each contender and even then one of us did not want the V and A to win.
“The museums are all so different and there are lots of different criteria but with the runners up there was always one fatal failing whether it was York Museum which had lost one-third of its audience because they had decided to charge visitors or the Bethlem which was in a Portakabin not so long ago but is still at the beginning with its programmes.
“The money is a spit in the ocean for the V and A but we were impressed by their decision to take shows on the roads as they used to before they were abandoned in the 70s. And I do believe there is an accolade in being one of five on the list - Jupiter Artland doubled the number of its visitors for example.”
But an accolade is not quite like winning, as a small, unfashionable museum like the Lightbox in Woking, Surrey, which won in 2008, testifies. The money meant they were able to build a new gallery to house contemporary works and afford to support one show every year by a local talent.
As marketing manager Pru Chambers says: “The publicity helped increase audiences from 70,000 to 100,000 and it raised the museums’s profile in terms of its peers so that we suddenly had credibility with other museums such as the Tate or the Courtauld who let us borrow from their collections.
“The effect was much greater on us than on one of the big hitters like the V and A.”
But that is to miss the point, as Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund explains: “This is the nub of the problem and also the strength of the Museum of the Year. You cannot compare a small museum with the British Museum or the V and A, they are completely different operations, yet they are put up against each other and the judges have to ask themselves the question; how well does this museum do what it does?
“In a way that sounds very simple but it’s quite a searching thing to ask. Could the British Museum do better? You might say it could. It has the best collection in the world but is it making most of it? In fact, when the museum won in 2011 it was for the curatorial project, The History of World in 100 Objects, and nothing to do splendour of its galleries or the depth of the collection.
“You are just as likely to get a brilliantly conceived curatorial idea from somewhere small or an imaginative redesign of an existing museum as we saw in 2012 with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter which won not because of a single showy event but a reworking of what they already had. From that point of view it doesn’t seem quite so absurd to have very small museums up against the big.”
His reasoning for the V and A victory moves unexpectedly into a reflection about art and elitism in a post-Brexit country.
“We had the referendum result in June, our prize was to be announced in July. How can we explain this surprising result when the UK was divided, with a metropolitan elite who think in one way and the rest of the country, disenfranchised and forgotten?
“To have the decision going to the V and A as the embodiment of that elite rather than Artland, York or Bristol was a great surprise. I think some believed when they came to the dinner to hear the announcement that the V and A was almost certainly not going to win because it would look like another example of elitism but the reality is that we weren’t thinking about the political landscape, we weren’t worrying what kind of decision we should take to make us look good or the museum world look good.
“We were simply asking; does the museum do what it does well? And we all thought the V and A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was one of the outstanding exhibitions of the year as its record - breaking 493,043 visitors testifies.”
Above all he feels the Art Fund has to defend the ‘purity of the prize’ by not trying to meet the views of a particular constituency but by letting the judges decide.
Jennifer Scott, who was director of the Holburne Museum in Bath, which was long listed for the prize in 2012, and has recently moved to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, shares Deuchar’s vision.
“I love the idea that the Art Fund is across the spectrum and that everyone is in the same pot together. For us it is very important that the Art Fund is leading the perception that all museums are equal.”
Big or small the contenders have to meet the same criteria. This year’s judges, sculptor Richard Deacon, Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, Munira Mirza former London deputy mayor for Culture and Education and DJ and television presenter, Jo Whiley with Deuchar as chairman will be deciding which museum has created a project which will provide a lasting legacy, whether it has a worthwhile learning programme and if it has done enough to inspire the enthusiasm of its visitors. Their targets this year could include the new Design Museum, the Tate Modern for its much vaunted extension and possibly the less known but constantly creative establishments such as the Holburne, the Pallant in Chichester and the Bowes in County Durham.
Perhaps what makes the decision making so charged is that the Art Fund prize is not just the most generous but the only financial reward given to a museum in the world. The annual Council of Europe Museum Prize offers prestige and a bronze statuette while the $1 million prize given by the UAE Abraaj Group is split between five artists and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in the USA awards the winner $100,000 plus a solo exhibition.
Runners up will win a consolatory £10,000 this year but just being on the short list was a ‘tremendous boost’ for the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, which is dedicated to the history and art of mental health.
“We were disappointed not to win but not begrudging,” says museum director Suzie Walker - Millar. “The Art Fund was very supportive and advised us on improving conditions for the disabled.
“We could have used the money on more outreach programmes and longer opening hours but the process raised our profile no end and the news of us being on the shortlist gave visitor figures a fillip. Above all, our staff and volunteers were so proud that they were no longer forgotten in the suburbs that they grew a foot taller.”