There was a time when the future of the William Morris Gallery looked bleak, and was threatened with closure, but the council-run gallery has just been listed in the top ten for The Art Fund’s prize for Museum of the Year 2013.
“The William Morris Gallery is a real labour of love for quite a number of us,“ says Lorna Lee, head of cuture and community services for the council.
“Not only have we had three times as many visitors as we initially predicted, but to have made it to the top ten of the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year – well it’s just the icing on the cake.
Once home to the English textile designer, artist, writer, philosopher and libertarian socialist, the Georgian-style property, which stands in Lloyd Park, Walthamstow, should have been a fitting tribute to the leading light of the Arts and Crafts movement.
But come 2007, rumours were circulating that rising costs and a depleting number of visitors could result in the closure of the space – or at the very least reduced opening hours.
However, thanks to a £1.5m Heritage Lottery Fund grant, matched by Waltham Forest Council, as well as donations from other trusts and foundations, far from closing, the gallery has been revamped and is now regarded by many as a jewel of Walthamstow.
And since reopening to the public in August 2012, following its extensive £5m renovation, more than 92,000 visitors have passed through its doors, eager to experience the permanent exhibits and contemporary artworks the space has to offer – among them shows by artist Grayson Perry and photographer David Bailey.
“We had to look at the gallery and consider its strengths – and it’s got many, it has one of the most fantastic collections relating to William Morris in the world, it’s the only gallery dedicated to his life.
“And the story of William Morris is really interesting, some people don’t know anything about it and that’s the starting point, it used to be that you needed to have a degree in Morrisology to get anything out of the gallery, but this is about telling the story of him as a person as well as what he produced.
“Also the fact that people who do know Morris, probably know a very small part – the wallpapers, the patterns, but actually he was an incredibly diverse person in what he achieved and did."
The William Morris Gallery will compete against nine other finalists BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, The Beaney in Canterbury, Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, The Hepworth Wakefield in Wakefield, Horniman Museum and Gardens in London, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, Narberth Museum in Pembrokeshire and Preston Park Museum and Grounds in Stockton-on-Tees.
A panel of independent judges will announce the winner on June 4 for the prize of £100,000. The Art Fund will also give one of the ten finalist museums £10,000 for the Clore Award for learning, which recognises achievements in learning programmes for children.
“If we won, it would be wonderful,” says Lorna, “I’d cry. We want to improve even more, open more in the evenings, create affordable craft workshops for adults, and help people who don’t speak English have a fantastic time at the gallery. There are many things to consider.”