It should have been a joyful moment. Instead the opening of York Art Gallery is marred by anger and protests

The ‘free art gallery’ protest outside York Art Gallery on its opening day. Photograph © York Art Society on Twitter
1 Aug 2015 @ 12.20 pm
| Opinion

When York Art Gallery closed its doors on December 31, 2012, residents had mixed feelings.

There was widespread disappointment that it would be shut for two and half years. Parents particularly, who would take their children to the gallery at weekends and holidays, mourned the long-time loss of such a welcoming, interesting and free venue.

But there was great hope that the £8 million being invested would create a world-class gallery, a venue of which the city could be proud, to be enjoyed by generations to come.

Now, after 943 days, the wait is over. Today (August 1), York Art Gallery has opened its doors, offering the public their first opportunity to see how the millions of pounds have been spent.

And there’s no doubt that the transformation has been stunning. There is 60% more space, new galleries in the old archives and a balcony overlooking what will soon be beautiful new gardens.

Most spectacular of all is the mezzanine level mostly given over to CoCA, the Centre of Ceramic Art. It is an art gallery of which any city would be proud.

Green councillor Dave Taylor (right) joins the art strike outside the gallery. Photograph © York Art Society on Twitter
Green councillor Dave Taylor (right) joins the art strike outside the gallery. Photograph © York Art Society on Twitter

It should have been a day of celebrations, a big Yorkshire Day party to which the whole city was invited.

Instead there are protests, an art ‘strike’, an alternative gallery opening, accusations and fury.

How has this happened?

The main players

There are two main players involved: York Museums Trust and City of York Council.

The first is a spin-out from the last. To make matters more complicated Explore York libraries and archives, another organisation to break away from council control, is embroiled as the issuer of the YorkCard.

York Museums Trust has shown what can be achieved when an organisation is given freedom from direct council control. It is undoubtedly a huge force for good in York.

The YMT has secured more funding in bequests and grants than it could have done if it were still tied to the Guildhall. And it has used the money to invest in and improve all its main venues, including the Castle and Yorkshire Museums.

The Art Gallery renovation was meant to be the pinnacle of this process. But the decision to impose a £7.50 entry fee has deflected attention from the success of this project and generated widespread dismay among residents.

What good is a wonderful new art gallery, if you can’t afford to see it?

Anger intensified when it emerged that the YorkCard may no longer offer residents free entry to the gallery, Castle Museum and Yorkshire Museum.

Questions for councillors

The York council chamber at Guildhall. Photograph © Allan Harris on Flickr
The York council chamber at Guildhall. Photograph © Allan Harris on Flickr

It was the former Labour council which imposed cuts of 60% over three years to the trust’s budget.

As we know from the oft-repeated mantra, everyone must suffer pain at a time of austerity. And national government cuts imposed on our council are a critical part of this problem.

However, this was the same council which was proposing a £9 million plan to turn the Guildhall into a digital arts centre.

Wouldn’t it have been better to protect the city’s proven and core assets, like the gallery and Castle Museum, rather than spend a fortune on speculative projects like this one and others?

Or was it too politically convenient to wash their hands of these assets, pretending that, as the YMT was no longer under their direct control, they had less of an obligation to protect the venues for current residents and future generations?

According to the York Museums Trust, they were told that it would be cleared to charge residents an entrance fee to make up for the cuts. Who authorised this?

Whoever did so seemingly acted beyond their powers. That change depended on a separate vote to release the trust from a clause in their contract saying residents must get in free.

And a more general question for city councillors: if Leeds, Bradford, Hull and many other cities can provide galleries that are free for residents, why can’t York?

Questions for the YMT

Superb… the mezzanine at York Art Gallery. Photograph: Peter Heaton
Superb… the mezzanine at York Art Gallery. Photograph: Peter Heaton

The trust has to ask itself some questions too.

Does it still agree that the art in the gallery belongs to the people of York? And that Dr Kirk gave his collection of ‘bygones’ – which became the Castle Museum – to the city too?

How did they come up with the £7.50 fee, which bears little comparison to similar regional galleries (the ones that aren’t free, that is)?

Green Party leader Cllr Andy D’Agorne said YorkCard visitors represent only a tenth of the total. So, as he asks, why force residents to pay £7.50 a time, when there is no way that will cover the funding gap?

And when democratically-elected councillors chose to say no to the residents charging – at least for now – how can the trust ignore that, and demand residents pay anyway?

The trust is absolutely right to point out that Explore York takes the money for the YorkCard but it is the YMT which has to fund free residents’ entry. This isn’t sustainable.

But surely some more negotiations could have worked out a better solution, where the proceeds are shared out fairly?

Clearly the trust wants to take control by introducing its YMT Card. But this has confused things, especially since it has changed the terms and price of the card, apparently on the hoof, in a failed attempt to assuage the public outcry.

Which resident is going to fork out a fiver for the YorkCard, now (we think) stripped of its main benefits, and a YMT Card, which has fewer benefits but is more than twice as expensive, at £11?

What we need is one card, affordably priced, offering all the benefits.

Like it or lump it

York Art Gallery. Photograph © Allan Harris on Flickr
York Art Gallery. Photograph © Allan Harris on Flickr

The gallery has been closed for more than two years. Austerity has been with us for far longer.

A more considered approach by everyone involved, talking to residents openly about the funding challenges, and asking for their input, would have yielded a much more positive outcome.

Instead we had a council imposing massive cuts on the trust without much debate. Followed by a sudden ‘like it or lump it’ announcement on art gallery entrance charges, and huge uncertainty on the YorkCard and free entry to the museums.

What a mess. And what a shame for York’s big day.

The sensible thing to do now is exactly what councillors proposed this week. Allow YorkCard holders in for free for now while a better solution is negotiated.

After all, those supposedly ‘free’ visitors will spend in the shop and café, and bring paying, out-of-town friends with them.

If all parties can put the past few months behind them, and the needs of the wider city first, things can be turned round.

And then we can all celebrate the remarkable rebirth of York Art Gallery.