At last: where the £100,000 is going at the William Morris Gallery

The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow won the Museum of the Year award in 2013.   The prize was twofold: a significant amount of free PR and marketing which has led to a massive rise in visitors and £100,000.  The prize came after a total refurbishment.

So what happened to the money?  I blogged in June last year and quoted the Leader of the Waltham Forest Council (the owners):

” We’re now deciding what we’ll spend the money on, and I guarantee that it will make a real,tangible difference to the Gallery itself and to the experience of visitors, whether they live in the borough, come as part of school visit or have travelled from another country to explore Morris’ extraordinary vision”

So what happened?   Nothing:  no news on the website, no news in the Council’s free PR paper. Silence.  For six months.  Time enough for a decision perhaps?

So in January I asked both the gallery and the Councillor, Ahsan Khan, who chairs the “Health and Well-being” committee which apparently includes culture.  He replied:

We are planning the spend of the Art Fund prize carefully, to ensure it makes a real difference to the Gallery.  We’ve analysed visitor feedback and are using some of the funds to enhance the visitor experience. This includes replacing some of the glazing
on paintings with museum-grade non-reflective glass. We are aware that the
current glazing prevents effective viewing of the paintings in the Gallery, especially the larger Brangwyn paintings. The worst affected painting, Brangwyn’s Dogana, has already had its glazing replaced and we are seeking quotes for other works. Other suggestions that we are investigating  include – replacing the benches with chairs in the tea room so that families and older people find access easier, more equipment to control the temperature in summer months and a buggy park. 

However we plan to use the majority of the Museum of the Year prize money as match-funding to apply for other grants. This means we can potentially double (or more) the value of the award. The focus for our fundraising activities is the Gallery’s exhibition and
activity programme. This includes our schools, families and young peoples’
programmes, as well as new opportunities for older residents to engage with the
arts (due to launch in 2014).

This programme is crucial to making sure we keep the offer fresh and continue to
encourage local residents to keep coming back for more. We currently
receive Heritage Lottery funding to support this programme, until November 2014.
The Gallery’s core costs (staffing, building upkeep etc) are all funded by the
London Borough of Waltham Forest but if we can attract additional external
funding  we can continue to develop and exceed such a high quality

So there we have it.   The Gallery has now been nominated for the European Museum of the Year award. (a Council of Europe project, not the EU this time!) It is in illustrious company.  Good luck!

And please go along to the current exhibition of Jeremy Deller last shown at the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale last summer.


Power to the people: from closure threat to Museum of the Year.

A campaign which started local and went global, has finally paid off.  Six years ago Waltham Forest Council planned to close the William Morris Gallery, in Walthamstow.

Now the gallery has won the Museum of the Year 2013, an award worth £100,000, and organised by the ArtFund.  Congratulations are flooding in. They are well deserved.  The renovations have transformed a fusty, dark and quite frankly unappealing building into an informative, bright and attractive survey of Morris and his myriad interests.  The obligatory cafe is a nice touch as well. Many photos on google.

Amongst the plaudits there is, however, a little re-writing of history.  One of the judges, the artist Bob and Roberta Smith is quoted in the ArtFund magazine:

” in the current climate it’s amazing to see a local authority realise the power of art in regenerating a borough”.

Other reports have made a similar point. Fair enough; Waltham Forest Council did provide £1,500,000 towards the work (around 30%) and will run the Gallery.  Good news for all who believe in the important role the arts can play in local well-being.

But it was not always this rosy. Six years ago the Council wished to close the Gallery, merge its priceless contents with a museum in South London and be shot of the whole affair. They wanted to save £65,000.  Unbelievably they had tried to do the same in 1987.

What changed their mind?  A very active campaign which gained world-wide support.  A petition signed by 11,630, demonstrations (it was cold!): citizens actions. An active Friends group was formed in 1987 lobbied.  The Council changed its mind.

Now the new Gallery has attracted over 100,000 visitors in less than a year from its re-opening. The Museum of the Year prize will bring in far more.   So it is congratulations to the local councillors.. for listening to their local citizens.

As well as the standing collection the Gallery has already hosted exhibitions by Grayson Perry, David Bailey, modern crafts and in 2014 becomes the first gallery in the UK to host Jeremy Dellers’ current exhibition at the British Pavilion in Venice. That features William Morris rising to hurl Abramovich’s monster yacht into the lagoon.

With the arts in financial trouble in most of Europe it is a little bit of good news on the power of campaigning.   William Morris, socialist, would have been pleased.