After months of speculation, the Art Fund Prize 2009 judges have chosen the four museums and galleries who will make it through to the shortlist and final round of judging. They are: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Orleans House Gallery, Ruthin Craft Centre and the Wedgwood Museum.
Each is now a step closer to winning the coveted £100,000 prize, the largest single award in the UK art world. The judging panel, which includes the likes of mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and artist Grayson Perry, chose the big four after spending April visiting each of the ten museums and galleries on the original longlist to test their cultural mettle.
Coincidentally or not, the shortlist comprises a varied mix of cultural delights covering England, Scotland and Wales. One venue is an independent museum trust, while the other three are run by local authorities.
David Puttnam, Chair of the Judges, said the panel was "thrilled" with the "geographic and cultural diversity" of the shortlist, claiming that picking the winner would be "a difficult task."
Kelvingrove. Picture © Glasgow City Council (Museums)
To many it is no surprise that Kelvingrove has made the final cut. The substantial Scottish institution is the UK's most visited museum outside of London, and is on the shortlist for the second time in three years.
This time Kelvingrove has been nominated for its Centre of New Enlightenment programme of experiences and events, designed to help young people gain self-confidence and strength of character.
Heavily involved with new technology, the programme sees children being guided through the museum’s collections by hand held computers, helping them engage with objects and staff in new ways.
The judges found the high-tech programme "original and infectious", and were impressed with the active and independent way it encouraged young people to explore the museum and galleries.
"The judges did the tour and took part in all the activities, which they were really good sports about," said John-Paul Sumner, Programmes Curator at the Museum, who expressed his "delight" at being shortlisted. "After we'd done it all, we got into a really good discussion about the learning objectives there are on the tour."
Ruthin Craft Centre. Picture courtesy Art Fund Prize
Smaller in scale is the Ruthin Craft Centre in Denbighshire, where Director Philip Hughes admitted a new appointment would have helped the existing trio of full-time staff following the "bonkers" reaction to their shortlisting.
Though it has no collections of its own, this Centre for the Applied Arts has become the most important gallery of contemporary craft in Wales.
Thanks to an extensive redevelopment in 2008 the 25-year-old Centre is now housed in a stunning new building, which gives the local and national crafts on show room to breathe while still finding space for artists' studios and an education suite.
The judges were particularly enamoured with the exhibitions on offer, the publications programme, and the energy and enthusiasm of the small team.
The Wedgwood Museum
Similarly energetic is the team behind the Wedgwood Museum, in Stoke-on-Trent, who have fared rather better than their financially-troubled namesake company. The much-loved pottery museum, built on the historic manufacturing site of Josiah Wedgwood and Sons Limited, only opened at the end of 2008 but has quickly built up a positive reputation.
The museum tells the story of the Wedgwood brand from the Industrial Revolution to today, with extensive collections of ceramic art expertly displayed alongside manuscripts, factory equipment and correspondence.
The judges appreciated how the museum contained a collection and archive of national importance but still had its roots very firmly in the local community. Director Gaye Blake Roberts said the shortlisting was "the icing on the cake" for the Museum, and pledged to use the potential Prize to expand building developments at the site.
Orleans House Gallery
Also exhibiting a decidedly local bent is Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham. Extensively renovated in 2008, the Thames-side gallery is now a buzzing community hub of cultural, artistic and educational activities.
The judges were "excited" by what they saw as an impressive achievement on a modest budget, and were also taken with the Gallery's team, who they felt exhibited imagination and a genuine passion for what they were doing, which places a strong emphasis on working with vulnerable young people and offering placements to promising students.
"There are some £25 million projects on that list, and ours is only about £2.5m all together," observed Head of Arts Rachel Tranter, discussing the longlist. "We kind of had our eye on the Prize, we all know it's the prestige award for our sector. It might be our time, who knows?"
Art Fund Director David Barrie said the shortlist "demonstrates once again the health and energy of the UK’s museums and galleries." "These four museums have made it to the shortlist because of their inspiring approaches to education, innovative ways to engage young people and general all round achievement and excellence," he added.
The shortlisted museum and galleries have one month to bask in their success before the overall winner of the Art Fund Prize 2009 is announced on Thursday June 18 at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London.
Who do you think should win? Cast your vote in the Guardian Online People's Choice poll – the winner will get an extra vote when the panel of seven judges make their final decisions.
Follow Culture24 for more reaction and all the latest news from the Prize, and visit the Art Fund Prize 2009 website.