The surprise of victory has left organisers at Yorkshire Sculpture Park basking in their Museum of the Year success
Although the Art Fund's winners since 2003 have included some unusual venues – the Big Pit National Coal Museum, in Wales, won in 2005, before Bristol's bracingly nautical ss Great Britain triumphed the following year – Yorkshire's “galleries without walls”, set on a vast 18th century estate which used to be home to Bretton Hall College, are somewhat removed from the traditional museum experience.
© Courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Given its amazing location and scenery, curators could be forgiven for a lax approach to programming. Yet the revolving exhibition line-up, which includes everything from Ai Weiwei's ever-beguiling sculptures (in a chapel) to a performance by five female weightlifters under the guidance of an artist doubling as Princess Bellsize Dollar, is as impressive as its backdrop.
“We genuinely didn’t think we’d win,” Peter Murray, who founded the rural complex of sculpture in 1977, told the BBC, having seen off persuasive challenges by an excellent shortlist which included the Mary Rose Museum, Tate Britain and the Hayward Gallery.
© Courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park
“We feel the competition was amazingly strong. To get this accolade from such a distinguished group of judges has really made our day, we were so delighted to receive this award.
“I think we probably won because we are very unique. There’s nowhere like us in Britain, there’s nowhere like us in Europe. There are very few places in the world like Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
“It’s been a slow process. We’ve had a very, very strong vision and we’ve gone out of our way to try to deliver that vision.
“We haven’t taken any shortcuts. We’re not wealthy, but we’ve been determined to try to create the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as one of the great museums in the world.”
Around 300,000 annual visitors circle a venue which began with £1,000 and no staff.
© Jonty Wilde
“In fact, we had nothing, we didn’t have an audience or anything,” said Murray.
“So whatever we’ve got we have developed ourselves – everything, good or bad, we’ve done it.
“I did sense that we were on to something because the landscape is very, very special and the support I got from people like Henry Moore, Sir Alan Bowness, who was Director of Tate at the time, the support I got from people like that made me think this is a very special project.
“The more I got into it, the more I realised that if we can have the patience and the energy to stay with it we will get there and create something special – which, indeed, is what we have done.”
Murray admitted the “incredibly generous” £100,000 prize money was “obviously very important”, but stressed that the prestige of winning took precedence.
“One of the things we’ve always done is support young artists,” he emphasised.
“As the cutbacks get more severe it gets more difficult to do that. So this money will help us.”
An Anthony Caro memorial display and more shows based around the works of Moore and Barbara Hepworth are planned for next year upon lands Murray and his team have spent decades caring for.
© Jonty Wilde
“When we first started we were trying to take works of art outside of the gallery and put them in the open air. But what we’re concerned with now is much more sophisticated than that.
“This is a very subtle and complex landscape and it’s taken us a long time to really understand the different spaces, the quality of the spaces, the way you get the open vistas, the way you get the very, very intimate areas.
“We try to underpin everything with learning. We get 40, 50,000 children coming through every year, and so we’re introducing children to art.”
Seizure, the Roger Hiorns work made in a council flat, moved to the Park last year.
“It was going to be demolished,” said Murray.
“With the support of the Arts Council and the Henry Moore Foundation and various other people, including the artist, we brought it here. It’s like going into an Aladdin’s Cave, it’s amazing.”
Fans of the Park reacted rapturously to the announcement.
“I have been going to YSP since I was five years old with my granddad,” wrote Craig Stables on the venue's Facebook page.
“I now take my kids there and love it more and more every time I visit.
“We have family in all corners of the globe and we always bring them to YSP when they visit us.
“We are so lucky to have this fabulous place on our doorstep and I am so glad that this has been acknowledged for everyone to see.”
A fellow supporter, Lucie Lawson, said the news eclipsed the visit of the Tour de France to the region during the weeked.
“What a way to top the excitement of Saturday and Sunday in Yorkshire,” she added.
“How fantastic for YSP – the most amazing, beautiful, incredible, outstanding art space in the World.
“I love it and so do the friends I meet and go there with.”
Broadcaster Michael Palin said his wanderlust had honed his appreciation of the Park.
“This is one of the two or three great sculpture parks of the world, I think,” he suggested.
“It certainly doesn’t have a parallel in the UK.
“It has been an extraordinary success and is something of real presence and great beauty.”
- Follow Yorkshire Sculpture Park on Twitter @YSPsculpture and Facebook. Follow the Art Fund on Twitter @artfund and use the hashtag #MOTY2014.
What have been your favourite museums this year? Leave a comment below.
More on the Museum of the Year:
Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2014: The six names on the shortlist
In Pictures: Yorkshire Sculpture Park through the seasons