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.


What would you do with £100,000?

Yes, there is a catch.  Not a windfall of £100,000 for yourself. I mean the £100,000 prize money awarded to the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow: the 2013 ArtFund Museum of the Year.

The Gallery is owned by the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The Leader of the Council, Chris Robbins, says, in the local Council free newspaper:

” 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”

Fine words and indeed credit does go to the Council for reversing their original decision on the future of the Gallery and embarking on its marvellous renovation.

I have a major concern with Councillor Robbins’ statement. It’s that term “we’re”.  Who are the “we”?  Experience across Europe has shown that decisions about the detail of cultural projects are not best handled by politicians. This Gallery owes its current status to the energy of those who campaigned to keep it open.  Surely residents of Walthamstow, and “Morrisians” further afield, should be invited to contribute to and be part of the discussions?

Readers of Private Eye over the last few years have seen examples of less than transparent decisions and accountability by the Council.  We must not let any suspicion of this apply to the £100,000 prize fund.

I suggest that Councillor Robbins arranges a public meeting in the Assembly Hall (with its Morris inscription over the entrance) and calls for open contributions on the use of the money.  I am sure he would attract a large audience and a range of practical and imaginative suggestions.  We know we can fill the Assembly Hall, as local citizens did to help save the EMD Granada cinema.  I am sure ArtFund judges such as historian, and MP, Tristram Hunt would give us their views.  The Friends of the William Morris Gallery have a key role.  A public celebration of the prize and a forward looking debate.

A second stage would be to co-opt as non-voting observers several members of the local community to the appropriate Council committee which will be discussing the practical plans.

A third step would be a regular public updating on the William Morris Gallery website of progress, of options, of why certain proposals have been rejected, of how the money is going.  Openess being the watchword.

Yes I’m biased and declare an interest: a local resident, a member of the ArtFund (good value for money!) and I have many books by and about Morris on my bookshelves.

William Morris was an indefatigable public speaker, taking his views across the country and speaking directly to citizens.  A good model for the Council to adopt now.

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.



E17: capital of culture

Imagine:    350 exhibitions and events in 180 venues; 47 music acts in 29 gigs; add an international film festival and the second month of a major refurbished top class museum.  Where’s this cultural extravaganza taking place?  A Capital of Culture somewhere in Europe?  A major city’s  annual programme?

Walthamstow. In September.  All of it.  Yes that’s right. The butt of so many jokes, a closed dog-racing stadium, E17. Walthamstow.

Well September sees an explosion of culture that consigns those jokes to history and puts Walthamstow on the map (well it’s there already: end of the Victoria Line).

The E17 Art Trail opens on 1 September is an independent artist-led project started in 2004. This year’s programmes covers all artforms (with 350 events of course it covers everything!), takes place in private houses, pubs, estate agents ( part of a poetry trail), shops,  cafes, in the streets and parks: in fact just about everywhere including churches (but not yet a mosque).  Check out the programme and  just experience the vitality of the area. (Even better of course come along: there will be something for you).

The E17 Film Festival recalls the 1920s heyday of British films when Walthamstow predated Hollywood.     “Walthamstow had four major film studios which produced over 400 films before the outbreak of the second world war. One of the most famous was The Battle of The Somme (1916). The film sold over 20 million tickets in its first six weeks – a record that could only be smashed 60 years later by the first Star Wars movie”

This years’ 10 day festival showcases short films. The international competition has short listed films from Germany, Japan, Russia, France, Spain, Czech Republic and UK here and a few tasters here.

Music takes over at the end of the month with the Stow Festival.  From Baroque ,Collegium Musicum 90, to soul  to Naz Anine’s Moroccan songs to, well the list is endless (inlcuding indie for those who,, well).  An advance playlist is on Spotify full line-up and gig info.

And whilst all of this is going on the newly refurbished William Morris Gallery gives a permanent venue for the borough’s culture.  Socialist, craftsman, poet, entrepreneur, designer, re-discoverer of Iznik pottery, founder of the heritage and conservation movement, Morris’ life and work is celebrated in the house he lived in as a teenager and student.  Hurry, as Grayson Perry’s “Walthamstow Tapestry” is on show until 23 September.

As a member of the selection panel for the European Capitals of Culture I often see cities putting forward cultural programmes which seek to engage the whole community, to bring culture and citizens closer together.  The commercial benefits of a vibrant cultural scene are critical to today’s prosperity. It’s just good to live in a borough which is a capital of culture, every year.