Four very different attractions have survived rigorous vetting by the Art Fund Prize judges and now line up for the final hurdle before the £100,000 is announced in June.
© Iwan Baan
Shortlisted from a remarkably strong list of ten museums and galleries across the UK, the four include one completely new gallery – the Hepworth Wakefield – and three major refurbishments – the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter and the Watts Gallery.
Together they represent a huge investment in culture financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and many other funders, patrons and supporters. Each of them exhibit the unique qualities that the judging panel - led by Lords Smith of Finsbury - looked for: innovation, excellence and public engagement.
The four chosen venues cover the length of the country, starting in Edinburgh, with the transformed Scottish National Portrait Gallery whose impressive Victorian Gothic exterior has been meticulously restored and the interior brought up to date enhancing historic features and adding a superb glass lift. The innovative approach to the displays, themed as Portrait of a Nation, now includes photography and landscapes.
Further south, The Hepworth Wakefield has already been dubbed “one of the finest art museums in Europe” and now all eyes will be on this contemporary art gallery designed by architect David Chipperfield as a series of concrete cubes.
Contrasting physically with the other three historic buildings on the shortlist, the Hepworth has already become a favourite attraction with Yorkshire audiences and aims to attract visitors from further afield.
Six galleries of varying sizes display the Wakefield collection of British contemporary art. At its heart is the Hepworth Family Gift which includes 44 full size models of works by Barbara Hepworth.
The Watts Gallery, just outside of Guildford, is dedicated just to the one artist: the great Victorian painter, George Frederic Watts.
He commissioned the building as a gallery towards the end of his life - and a successful career as a popular artist. However during the 20th century the Gallery’s fortunes declined along with interest in Victorian romantic and religious art. By 2004 the building was deemed to be “at risk”.
A campaign was launched, not just to save the crumbling building and the collection, but to create an exciting, vibrant attraction celebrating the life of GF Watts and his wife Mary. It is this amazing transformation which has earned the Watts Gallery its place on the shortlist.
In Exeter, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, popularly known as RAMM, was founded in 1861 as a memorial to Prince Albert. The building closed in 2007 and the collection of some 1.5 million objects was moved out to allow the builders in.
When it reopened last December visitors poured in to marvel at the new galleries and displays. While the museum had focused on its rebuilding, it had also sustained an impressive outreach programme across the region through a network of smaller museums as well as online.
Dan Cruickshank, the broadcaster and heritage journalist, called the building “an exquisite jewel box...a Venetian casket. One of the most appealing treasures in Britain." It now has an interior to match and the public support to go with it.
The shortlist was chosen by an independent panel of judges chaired by Lord Smith of Finsbury, the former Labour MP and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
Joining him was the theoretical physicist, author and broadcaster Professor Jim Al‐ Khalili OBE, Guardian journalist Charlotte Higgins and author, broadcaster and Historic Royal Palaces curator Lucy Worsley.
Also on the panel were Sir Mark Jones, the Master at St Cross College, Oxford and former V&A director, architect Rick Mather and Lisa Milroy, artist and Head of Graduate Painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL.
Lord Smith praised the museums on the shortlist as "truly outstanding institutions" that despite being varied in scale and theme, shared "a remarkable commitment to connecting with their visitors and telling powerful stories through objects and images”.
“Whittling ten really strong nominees down to a list of four was a supremely difficult process," he added, "and I’ve no doubt that deciding on a ‘museum of the year’ from this list will prove equally tough.”
Penelope, Viscountess Cobham, Chairman of The Museum Prize Trust which administers the prize, said the tenth year of the award boasted a shortlist of “truly exceptional quality.”
“In these challenging times it is more important than ever to acknowledge the achievements of such original and vibrant organisations, museums which ask questions about history, culture and the world around us.”
The Trust also runs the Clore Award for Museum Learning and the shortlist for that award, which is in its second year, includes the Florence Nightingale Museum in London, the Yorkshire Museum in York, Leicestershire County Council Heritage and Arts Service, Camden Arts Centre and the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.
The winner will receive £10,000, with the announcement made at the same time as the Art Fund Prize, on June 19 2012 at the British Museum.