Grace O’Connor ’22
Last week, the Essex art museum, Firstsite, was named the Art Fund Museum of the Year. It received this recognition not only due to its extravagant artwork, but also because of its generosity to its local community; indeed, Firstsite makes forming relationships between artists and members of the Essex community a priority.
This was more apparent than ever during the pandemic, particularly when the museum used its resources to help those in need. For example, it offered its space for use as a base to supply food to local neighborhoods and turned its restaurant into a school canteen, offering free school meals for students during the holidays. Firstsite also brought hope and creativity to children and their families during the pandemic with The Great Big Art Exhibition, which encouraged members of the local community to create their own works of art to be hung in the museum’s windows.
Firstsite has gone through drastic changes over the past couple of years, but only truly solidified its place in the art museum world during the pandemic, when it became renowned for its philanthropic efforts. As The Guardian explains, in 2015, Firstsite was “in crisis mode after Arts Council England removed it from the national portfolio, instead offering a year-by-year funding deal.” This change put Firstite at great risk of losing substantial funds.
Despite this setback, Firstsite returned to the national portfolio in 2018 under new leadership. The museum’s Director, Sally Shaw, was crucial in this turnaround. Shaw dedicated her time and expertise to showcase the museum’s unique attributes and purpose. Upon hearing that Firstsite would be returning to the national portfolio, she remarked how she was “incredibly proud to be the director” of the museum. “We do two things at Firstsite, we work with some incredible artists and simultaneously we work with some extraordinary communities,” added Shaw.
As The Art Newspaper details, a £100,000 prize, the largest possible award, was granted to the museum because “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.” The paper also quotes Jenny Waldman, sharing that “the Art Fund director and chair of the judging panel” said that the honor was given to the museum for being an “outstanding example of innovation and integrity.” Evidently, Firstsite has gone above and beyond helping others, proving that it is so much more than an art museum.
Indeed, Firstsite truly exemplifies the purpose of art: to bring people together. Unlike many other museums, it prioritizes establishing connections between its community and its artists. Firstsite’s size also contributes to the creation of this tight-knit community. Indeed, at the very core of this museum is the goal of serving the local community and igniting hope among its people. Firstsite demonstrates not only the power of art, but also the importance of helping others, which is often forgotten in the craziness of today’s world. The impact of their contributions proves that no small deed goes unnoticed.