Small galleries dominate list of best British art shows

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In Victorian times, Woking was known as a place for the "mad, the bad and the dead" because of its large cemetery, Zoroastrian burial ground, crematorium and asylums. The title was relevant until 1993, when a group of determined locals shook off the shadows of the past by helping to open its first gallery and museum.

Yesterday, that museum featured on the nation's largest art prize shortlist, which was dominated by small regional galleries or exhibitions that have opened over the past year.

The Lightbox Gallery and Museum in Woking, the Shetland Museum and Archive in Lerwick, and an anti-slavery exhibition at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol were all selected for the Art Fund prize, which recognises Britain's best new or renovated galleries and shows in the past 12 months with an award, for the winner, of £100,000.

All except the fourth shortlisted venue, the Wellcome Collection, which opened its doors in central London last year with the help of £30m from the Wellcome Trust, are small-scale venues or exhibitions that were up against some of the goliaths of the art world on the long list. Theyincluded the British Library's exhibition of religious scripts called Sacred, and the International Slavery Museum, which opened in Liverpool to great fanfare.

In Woking, 70 campaigners worked for years as unpaid volunteers to help start the Lightbox, which was hailed as an "ingenious jewel" by the cultural critic, Stephen Bayley, when it opened. A new museum which traces the history of the town and two galleries alongside it were built with £3.5m funding from the borough council, matched by fundraising efforts.

The exhibition in Bristol, entitled Breaking the Chains, was put on by trustees who were initially refused Heritage Lottery Funding (HLF) money. Gareth Griffiths, director of the museum, said trustees managed to raise £250,000, even pledging their own private funds, because they felt a "moral responsibility" to put on a show which marked the colonial history of the town.

The HLF finally awarded the museum funding, months before the exhibition was due to open in May last year. It was regarded as a landmark show when it opened to mark the bicentenary of the 1807 Act that abolished the British Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The museum in the Shetlands was welcomed as a "heritage hub", displaying more than 3,000 items over two floors tracing the islands' geological beginnings to the present day.

The Wellcome Collection was commended for its innovative hybrid exhibitions. These brought together the worlds of art and science with shows dedicated to themes such as death, sleep and the heart. They included a live link to a hospital theatre to view an open-heart operation.

The winner will be announced on 22 May.

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