06 May, 2009

Wedgwood burnishes its past to lift economic gloom

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

• Potteries museum makes Art Fund prize shortlist
• Chance of £100,000 win after year of financial woe

It is just over 250 years to the day since Josiah Wedgwood created what went on to become one of the world’s most famous pottery firms and it is still going, just, after a year of financial turmoil.

But helping to lift the gloom has been the success of a new museum built in Wedgwood’s name which was yesterday named as a contender for the UK’s most lucrative arts prize.

The Wedgwood Museum opened in October last year in a new building next to the art deco Wedgwood factory in the village of Barlaston, Staffordshire. It was shortlisted for the annual Art Fund prize for museums and galleries yesterday along with Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, the Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham, London, and the Ruthin Craft Centre in Denbighshire.

Each is competing for the £100,000 top prize to be announced on 18 June. For the first time anyone can vote online for their favourite of the four museums by going to guardian.co.uk/culture.

The museum that wins the public vote will gain a one vote advantage when a panel of seven judges, chaired by the film-maker Lord Puttnam, meets to decide on the ultimate prizewinner.

For the Wedgwood Museum it is cheering news in a sometimes miserable year for the potteries. The Waterford Wedgwood company was placed in administration in January but rescued in March by a US-based private equity company which promised substantial investment and a commitment to keeping some production in the UK.

The museum’s director, Gaye Blake-Roberts, said the shortlisting was wonderful news, coming a few days after they celebrated the 250th anniversary of the opening of the first Wedgwood factory. “Isn’t it exciting? We’re absolutely thrilled,” she said.

Blake-Roberts said there was now a feeling of optimism surrounding Wedgwood. “There is an irony in the museum doing so well. But the new owners have said production will stay here and there is a feeling that it is the beginning of a new era.”

The museum has been built on the Wedgwood factory site at Barlaston that opened in 1940 and is based on the funnel shape of the bottle kilns which used to cover Staffordshire. Blake-Roberts said visitors had been struck by the diversity of Wedgwood production over the years and anyone expecting cabinets full of blue and white Jasper would be in for a shock.

The Kelvingrove has been shortlisted for its new programme of educational events called The Centre of New Enlightenment, praised as “original and infectious” by the judges. It involves giving children whizzy handheld technology guides in which they can interact with and independently explore the museum’s collections.

Orleans House Gallery was praised by the judges for an impressive renovation and restoration achieved on a modest budget. Alongside its permanent collection, it hosts temporary exhibitions which range from the heyday of the postcard to the current one – 18th century sculptors and Shakespeare.

The Ruthin Craft Centre in north Wales is another new build and has a rolling programme of contemporary craft exhibitions as well as a new education space and craft studios. The judges said they were impressed by the excellence of the centre’s exhibitions programme as well as the energy and enthusiasm of its small team.

Puttnam will sit in judgment with a panel that also includes the artist Grayson Perry and the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. Puttnam said: “We are thrilled with the geographic and cultural diversity of what has emerged on the shortlist.”

The prize is sponsored by The Art Fund, the charity which helps museums and galleries buy new works. Last week it released a study that showed that a majority of museums are expecting budget cuts this year in the face of rising visitor numbers. It has urged galleries to keep on adding to their collections – but, it says, try to haggle the asking price down.

The fund’s outgoing director, David Barrie, said the “exciting” shortlist demonstrated the “health and energy” of UK museums. “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.”

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