FIRSTSITE has won the coveted Art Fund Museum of the Year award, scooping the £100,000 prize money ahead of its tenth anniversary.

The prize was presented to the gallery’s director Sally Shaw at a ceremony at London’s Science Museum.

The gallery received praise for its community work, having offered free school meals to children during the school holidays and providing art parks.

Art Fund annually selects five outstanding museums for the prize and this year’s edition reflects the resilience and imagination of the institutions throughout the pandemic.

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At this stage of museums re-opening and starting their recovery, the 2021 prize highlights and rewards the extraordinary ways in which they have, over the troublesome past year, served and connected with their communities.

Throughout the pandemic, Firstsite launched Art is Where the Home Is - a series of free activity packs featuring more than 50 artists - which was downloaded by 92,000 households.

Firstsite also continued to provide its ground-breaking Holiday Fun programme, providing free creative activities, sport and physical exercise sessions.

Gazette: Winner - Sally Shaw, and Art Fund Director Jenny WaldmanWinner - Sally Shaw, and Art Fund Director Jenny Waldman

It also saw more than 6,000 freshly cooked meals given to children and families in Colchester and Harwich, prompting the award ceremony’s host John Wilson, to describe Firstsite as “the Marcus Rashford of museums”.

In response to Black Lives Matter campaign, it commissioned artist Elsa James to make a downloadable work in solidarity and celebrated black culture in Essex.

Expressing her surprise and delight upon hearing the announcement of their success, Firstsite director Sally Shaw said everyone at the gallery was “absolutely thrilled”.

She said: “It is testimony to all the Firstsite team, our board of trustees and, of course, the artists and community groups who have worked with us over the past 18 months.

“Their determination and passion to help us reach out across the barriers created by Covid and create a sense of community through art has been incredible.

“It is also recognition for our various partners and funders, plus the communities and visitors we serve, who all make Firstsite such a vibrant, welcoming and essential place to be.

“So, on behalf of everyone connected to Firstsite, a huge thank you to the judges for this wonderful prize.

“Not least, because it will enable us to continue working closely with the people of Colchester and the surrounding areas on more fantastic projects, creating platforms and visibility for those who are the most overlooked and under-valued to have their say.

“This prize will help us achieve so much.

“It will help us reach even more children and give them regular opportunities to be creative, active and well-nourished when they’re not at school.

“Everything we do at Firstsite is geared towards fuelling imaginations – imagination is essential to forming successful, happy and resilient communities.

“This award will help us fire the imaginations of so many more people and empower communities to find solutions to the many challenges that now lay before us in this post-pandemic world.”

Responding to the award, arts consultant Dorian Kelly said: “It is so much more than an art gallery or a collection of exhibits. “It won because by keeping hope that life could return to normal one day and when it did it would be better than ever.

“It won because it made its facilities freely available to the refugee population. Gave them hope, a welcome and allowed their culture to stay alive: to young adults to learn digital technology and music making, wall space for their work, and so, so much more.

“And, above all, it won because it is the heart of Colchester.”