After a refurbishment costing £8 million which has taken two and a half years to complete, today York Art Gallery reopened. Since shutting its doors in January 2012, the venue has seen its exhibition space increased by 60%, with the creation of new first-floor galleries, and an expansion into some of the rooms previously occupied by the City Archives. An enlarged café area, operated by Gillygate’s Cafe No8, is situated on the ground floor; while the rear of the building has been developed into a green space, opening out onto the Museum Gardens.
Already boasting a large collection of British ceramics, the newly established Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) at the gallery is showing more than 2,000 works. These are being displayed accompanied by an installation, commissioned specially for the reopening, by ceramicist Clare Twomey. Meanwhile the Lycett Green collection of Italian Old Masters – described by senior curator Jennifer Alexander as setting York Art Gallery apart from its regional competitors – is contrasted with Dutch and Flemish paintings by artists including Anthony van Dyck and Frans Snyder; and with Victorian, Modern and Contemporary art from Henri Fantin-Latour, Walter Sickert, Paul Nash, David Hockney, and Sarah Lucas.
Several nudes by ‘York’s most famous artist’ William Etty are on show; and three paintings of the city by L.S. Lowry, including one of Clifford’s Tower, are being displayed together for the first time. Just prior to the reopening, York Art Gallery announced the purchase of Grayson Perry’s ceramic figure Melanie, which is featuring as part of the CoCA displays.
Alas, any excitement towards the reopening of the gallery has dissipated amidst a row over entry. York Art Gallery is run independently of the City of York Council, by York Museums Trust: a body which is also responsible for York Castle Museum, York St Mary’s, and the Yorkshire Museum. From a figure of £1.5 million in 2012/13, the council’s grant to York Museums Trust has fallen this year by 60%, to just £600,000.
Free entry for all to York Art Gallery was established in 2002, and initially brought a 200% increase in attendances. But faced with such a drop in funding, the Trust determined back in April to reintroduce ticket prices: of £7.50 per visit for adults aged over sixteen; with a YMT Card allowing year-round access to all of the Trust’s attractions for £22. Suggesting that York’s millions of tourists would prove willing to pay such fees, the topic of access for residents has been more controversial.
As things stood, York residents could pay £5 for a York Card, which provided free entry to York Castle Museum and the Yorkshire Museum, to York Minster, and discounts for other museums, events, swimming pools, and fitness centres. But in June it was confirmed that residents too would have to pay for entry to the refurbished York Art Gallery. The £7.50 charge per visit would remain in place for them; with the YMT Card offered to residents for the reduced price of £17.
Responding belatedly to the narrow but noisy outcry, on Wednesday the council’s Executive for Leisure and Culture deferred a decision on ticket prices for residents until September. The notion was raised that the council’s lease of property to York Museums Trust may prohibit the Trust from charging residents. However the following day, the Trust vowed to go ahead with charges for residents, agreeing nevertheless to cut the cost of a residents’ YMT Card to £11. Seemingly unwilling or unable to force the Trust to forego residents’ charges, the council thanked them for taking action, while still positing some further decision on the matter come September.
This remains a muddled state of affairs, and as York Art Gallery reopened today, protesters – including one of York’s Green Party councillors – gathered outside. When they attempted to enter showing only their York Cards, they were admitted free of charge, with the gallery citing public safety concerns.
An assortment of local and national issues come into play here. Locally, there is a broad anger at the sense that York is increasingly catering for tourists at the expense of residents; at failed charging policies previously implemented either by or in connection with the council; and upset and confusion over the relationship between prospective ticket prices and the existing York Card.
But more significantly, on a national level, the austerity measures imposed by successive Conservative-led governments have significantly reduced local council budgets: and in this scenario, it is the arts which tend to face some of the quickest and most severe cuts. As in York, so Brighton Museum and Art Gallery determined earlier this year to introduce charges for tourists; and other local galleries and museums seem set to follow suit. This belies political expressions, emanating from Westminster, concerning the importance of access to and diversity within the arts in Britain. While the message is always about the value of culture, in an already debased landscape culture increasingly becomes the preserve of a relatively affluent minority.
Local councils can still determine where to spend the money they do receive. But for trusts like YMT, hit with such sharp reductions in funding, they face an almost impossible situation. They can attempt to increase revenues by focusing on food sales and merchandising, by renting out their exhibition spaces, or by charging for one-off exhibits. But the gains here are often minor and hard to come by; and otherwise they must either charge for entry, or face redundancies, and the sell-off of property and collections.
The government has pledged to uphold free entry for the core collections of national museums – many of which are located in London, including the British Museum, Tate Britain and Tate Modern, the National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. Yorkshire itself contains several arts venues of an international standard – notably the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Hepworth Wakefield – which continue to offer free access.
But these free offerings only render more aggravating – and in many cases even absurd – the notion of paying to visit lesser collections. In the Netherlands, for instance, a Museum Card costs an adult £38 a year, but grants unfettered access to a wealth of world class museums throughout the country. In the United Kingdom – beyond the undue priority given to London – there seems a lack of big thinking when it comes to the arts, and a lack of collaboration between institutions. More sharing is required if regional museums are to be worth a visit; and if economic pressures persist, then the art world should come together to find a more thoughtful and encompassing solution.