BEFORE stepping back inside York Art Gallery, I thought it was a cheek and an impertinence to charge visitors £7.50 to look at the city’s art collection. Now I’ve changed my mind slightly.
What they have achieved with the art gallery is nothing short of marvellous. But that £7.50 is still a cheek and an impertinence.
As a local, it didn’t actually cost that much. Instead I shelled out 11 Yorkshire pounds for a card lasting a year. This gives ‘free’ entry to the gallery and other York Museum Trust attractions. “YMT Card,” it says on the front. “Great value, priceless memories.”
Well, yes. One of those memories is that not long ago a York Card got you into those places for free. But I paid anyway so that I could take my mother around the ‘new’ gallery (she had to pay the standard £7.50).
That YMT Card joins all the others shoved into my wallet, only two of them bank cards. One is a My Waitrose card and that’s a laugh. It’s because they don’t issue a My Waitrose Only When Feeling A Little Bit Flush card.
Also taking up space in my otherwise barren wallet is a Picturehouse card for York City Screen. Seeing this, I did pause for a moment. If I am prepared to pay for membership of a cinema, why does paying to get into an art gallery bother me?
As I’ve asked the question, I’d better attempt an answer. I joined City Screen because I like the place. Membership includes a few free tickets, money off coffee, beer and food, and the occasional free screening for members (when they remember to tell you about them, that is). So I willingly paid much more for those privileges than I did for a year’s access to York Art Gallery, plus two museums.
I think the problem is one of idealism. Galleries and museums should be free. They belong to the people and the people shouldn’t have to pay to see their treasures and wonders. In tight times there will always be someone on hand to tell you that an art gallery or a theatre isn’t exactly the NHS. This is true so far as it goes, which isn’t all that far in my book.
The other day I came across a good quote from Bob and Roberta Smith. What a sensible pair they are. Except that they’re not: it’s just the nom-de-paintbrush of Patrick Brill.
This is the artist who stood against Michael Gove at the last election. You may have noticed that Gove is still around. Brill only secured 273 votes, but declares himself happy with the result, as his intention was to highlight the importance of art (“All schools should be art schools” is one of his slogans).
In a newspaper Q&A, Brill decried the “deep philistinism and scepticism towards art” he sees in this country. Such attitudes existed under Labour, he says, and have come back “with a vengeance under the Tories”.
Here is one of many sensible things he said: “The arts are not just important in themselves but fundamental to democracy. Kids need to think about ideas. If you teach them self-expression, you are adding to democracy. Why do you think oppressive regimes always try to censor art and lock up artists?”
As for York Art Gallery, the place is now a true wonder, especially upstairs. On the ground floor everything is similar but smarter, with a new café, shop and loos, leading to three gallery spaces.
It is not until you climb the stairs that you realise the true extent of the transformation. The old pottery gallery at the top of the stairs has gone and is now open space, while the exposure of the roof has created a fantastic galleried area, with a white ceiling, the old metal supports painted white too, and a row of dazzling skylights. Here you find the CoCA Galleries devoted to pottery.
Behind the galleries there is a wide outdoors platform overlooking the new gardens to the left and, for now, an empty space to the right.
There is much to enjoy at this top level, from Clare Twomey’s 10,000 bowls to the pottery, paintings and other artefacts collected for many years by Anthony Shaw. These are displayed as if still in his room at home, complete with his furniture, a clever and intimate bit of work.
There is more, much more, and it’s worth a look, so long as you can overcome your objections to paying.