When plans for a major sculpture gallery on the edge of Wakefield town centre were first mooted they were branded madness by those who questioned such a venue’s viability. But any lingering doubts have been have now been silenced as The Hepworth Wakefield was named Art Fund Museum of the Year.
It was second time lucky for the gallery, which had previously been shortlisted for the prestigious award in 2012, just 12 months after opening. However, this year it went one step further by picking up the trophy, a £100,000 cheque and the kudos, which many would argue is priceless.
Judges praised the Hepworth for its “unfailing flair” at the ceremony held at the British Museum and were undoubtedly swayed by director Simon Wallis’s decision to launch the gallery’s very own art award.
The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture was unveiled as part of its fifth birthday celebrations and the inaugural winner Helen Marten, who later went on to win the Turner Prize, made headlines when she pledged to share the £30,000 prize money with her fellow nominees.
Art Fund Museum of the Year is the largest museum prize in the world and is given annually to one outstanding museum which has shown exceptional imagination, innovation and achievement.
This year’s prize was handed out by Radio 2 DJ Jo Whiley, who was on the judging panel, at a dinner attended by more than 450 guests including artists Mat Collishaw, Edmund de Waal and Richard Deacon.
She said: “Travelling around the country and discovering places that were completely new to me has really opened my eyes to the incredible work that UK museums are doing.
“Any one of the short-listed museums would have been a worthy winner, and the pressure was very much on in making this tough decision, but in the end we all agreed that The Hepworth Wakefield was a worthy winner.”
The Yorkshire gallery was chosen from a shortlist that also included Lapworth Museum of Geology (Birmingham), National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art (Newmarket), Sir John Soane’s Museum (London) and the Tate Modern (London).
For the first time this year, the other finalists didn’t walk away empty handed, with each receiving a £10,000 prize in recognition of their achievements.
Art Fund director and chair of the judges Stephen Deuchar said: “The Hepworth Wakefield was a powerful force of energy from the moment it opened in 2011, but it has just kept growing in reach and impact ever since.
“It serves its local community with unfailing flair and dedication and contributes centrally to regional tourism too, bringing 210,275 visitors in 2016, up 21 per cent on the previous year. It’s a museum everyone would dream of having on their doorstep.”
The Art Fund is the national fundraising charity for art. In the last five years it has given £34m to help museums and galleries acquire works of art for their collections and it is not the first time that Yorkshire has been home to a Museum of the Year.
Three years ago the Yorkshire Sculpture Park which, along with the Hepworth and the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds forms part of the county’s sculpture triangle, won the prize.