Organisers at 16 museums and cultural organisations across the UK are experiencing a mix of joy and relief after the Arts Council announced the groups it will form key alliances with for the next three years, distributing around £20 million annually under its regional museum scheme.
Renaissance funding helps major museums in each UK region to devise programmes and activities, effectively acting as leaders of good practice for their area.
Having taken over from previous adjudicators the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council last year, the governing body weighed up 29 applications from groups keen to win Major museum status.
The open application process judged each one against specific goals for the first time. The three-year commitment – also a new initiative – aims to give greater security to each recipient.
"This is excellent news," said Ged Bell, the committee chair of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, which oversees the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens and Newcastle's Discovery Museum among 12 key venues in the region.
"We are delighted that this considerable investment from Arts Council is being made in our museums and galleries, recognising the important role they play in the social, cultural and economic make-up of our region."
Director Iain Watson said the group would strive to follow the criteria set out by the Arts Council, which emphasised qualities such as sustainability, diversity, engagement with children and resilience.
"We are confident that we can deliver the Arts Council's goals," he added.
"We are looking forward to continuing to make a difference in people's lives through providing quality museum and archive services."
Most of the beneficiaries are umbrella groups such as the Birmingham Museums Trust, the Cumbria Museums Consortium, York Museums Trust and Bristol City Council, perhaps demonstrating the increasing trend for sites to share resources.
In London, the famous ethnographical collections of the Horniman Museum and Gardens and the Museum of London will be backed, and two of Devon's finest – the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter and Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery – are confirmed partners.
But leaders at Museums Sheffield, which missed out having pursued £1.4 million per year, said the announcement would result in the loss of 45 jobs, reduced facilities at its triumvirate of venues and "the end of significant exhibitions of a national standard".
"This is bitterly disappointing news," admitted Nick Dodd, the Chief Executive of the team overseeing the Millennium Gallery, the Graves Gallery and Weston Park Museum.
"Funding from the outgoing Renaissance in the Regions scheme has transformed the quality of museum and gallery provision in Sheffield over the past eight years.
"This decision will have a devastating impact and leaves Sheffield, South Yorkshire and the East Midlands grossly under-funded by the Arts Council in comparison with other parts of the country."
Dodd said the group would challenge the Arts Council's "strategic and geographical distribution of this public money". He was echoed by the Leader of Sheffield City Council, Julie Dore, who said the bid was "very strong" and "should have been recognised for its cultural offer."
Maurice Davies, the Museums Association's Head of Policy, called the verdict "a good cut of the major regional museums".
"The fact that this outcome was arrived at through arts council criteria, without taking into account historic packages of funding, is a very positive reflection on a process which was very rigorous with very clear criteria for decision making," he observed.
The Arts Council said a year of "transitional funding" would be agreed with unsuccessful applicants.
A development fund will now be open to local museum "networks", offering £8 million from 2012 to 2015, as well as national programmes including the Accreditation and Designation schemes for important collections.
A Strategic support fund of around £15 million a year will also be announced in the autumn.
"We received many more strong applications than we were able to fund, but major partner funding is not the only way the Arts Council is supporting regional museums," reflected Chief Executive Alan Davey, who said the partnerships represented "a significant step forward" in the body's "closer relationship with the wider cultural sector."
"We are excited to be working with them and we’re confident that together they have the skills and ambition needed to provide the sort of inspirational leadership and direction that will benefit museums and audiences across the country.
"We believe that the opportunities for investment, skills sharing and support available through the other parts of Renaissance will benefit many more museums of all shapes and sizes across the country."
Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, said the decisions made for "a particularly good week for museums and galleries," applauding a £4 million series of smaller investments in galleries and infrastructures also awarded by the DCMS/Wolfson fund
"It is extremely gratifying that we are able to invest in so many exciting plans for development and growth.
"The fact that we are still able to invest for the future during such challenging economic circumstances shows how important culture is to our future prosperity and wellbeing."
The Renaissance scheme allocated around £300 million in "Hub" funding between 2002 and 2009. For the 2011-2012 year, it gave grant money of £37.6 million to 45 museum services.
The exact amounts awarded to the Major partners will be published in April 2012.
Full list of Renaissance Major partner museums:
Beamish and Bowes Museum
Birmingham Museums Trust (Birmingham City Council; Think Tank)
Bristol City Council
Cumbria Museums Consortium (Tullie House; Wordsworth Trust; Lakeland Arts Trust)
Horniman Museum & Gardens
Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust
Leeds Museums & Galleries
Manchester Partnership (Manchester City Galleries; Manchester Museum; Whitworth Art Gallery)
Museum of London
Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service
Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter and Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
University of Cambridge Museums
Oxford University Museums and Oxfordshire County Museums Service
York Museums Trust