Two and a half years and eight million pounds after the old gallery closed its doors and the extensive rebuilding began we were delighted to be invited to the unveiling of the beautiful brand new 60% increase of reconfigured display space. Dr Janet Barnes CBE (Chief Executive of York Museums Trust since 2002) with much pride and no doubt great relief will welcome back the public on August 1st to York’s much-missed art gallery.
There will be two entrances into the gallery, the familiar one in Exhibition Square looking very much the same as before (perhaps prompting obvious and unjustified comments as to where all that money has gone). Just to the right of the main entrance is York’s brand new Snickleway, running adjacent to the impressive walls of the ruined St. Mary’s Abbey, hidden from public view for many years. It is such a delightful surprise to reach the end and be confronted by a garden of tremendous proportion with a gate leading directly from the Museum Gardens.
This outdoor area will add even more to a visit to the gallery and when completed will be another fabulous addition of a peaceful open space for the city centre, with great potential for an outdoor sculpture garden with plenty of room for a possible events stage. There is another gallery entrance from a balcony here giving a splendid view over the new walled gardens.
The design of the building is incredibly user friendly: light floods into the entrance hall from the previously covered Victorian skylights, each of the seven main galleries with its own personality. Instead of a stuffy "it’s not for the likes of us" gallery, York has a welcoming, fun art space to be proud of; the friendly knowledgeable staff appear genuinely happy to be part of such exciting times. I was so pleased to see ‘HANDS ON’ signs on certain pieces in each gallery - families are welcome to go in and interact with various collection pieces. To me sculpture is tactile, part of the sensory enjoyment is to touch! There are also plenty of seats to sit upon and contemplate favourite art works. In a corner of the upstairs ceramic gallery there are sofas, books and items to handle beside a huge picture window, again the hands on experience to increase enjoyment for all.
The latest events programme is also inclusive, with activities and talks for people of all ages and abilities. The opening exhibitions are inspired; in the central Madsen Gallery, ‘Sacred Spaces’ combines masterpieces of early Italian Renaissance - oozing sumptuous gold, with specially commissioned pieces by Phil Eglin, whose wonderfully quirky ceramics co-produced with local schoolchildren and inspired by the religious paintings and alter pieces sit comfortably alongside one another. Susie MacMurray’s ‘Halo’ shivers and hovers over the wall at the far end of this gallery, made of gold-covered wire and inspired by her travels to Russia where she imagined peasants visiting the candlelit churches, staring in wonder at the heavily gilded paintings flickering and other worldly in the candlelight. It is a beautiful piece, coming to life the nearer you get to it, breathtaking when you gaze into it.
The purpose -built Centre of Ceramic Art is in pride of place upstairs in the heart of the gallery. York has had a renowned ceramic collection for many years, and now the 5,500 pieces can be displayed fully for the first time. Predominantly comprising four significant private collections of British Studio Ceramics, York holds the most representative public collection in the U.K. Its latest acquisition being ‘Melanie’ by Grayson Perry.
The stunning new installation by Clare Twomey entitled ‘Manifest - 10,000 Hours’ towers up to the Victorian skylights on effective black-edged scaffolding reminiscent of a working pottery. The multi-layered meaning of the dramatic piece includes and respects everyone: makers, collectors and apprentices who have to work 10,000 hours in order to master their trade, each of the 10,000 bowls also took one hour to complete respecting the task involved. Many York residents volunteered to make a bowl and be part of the exhibition.
The other Centre of Ceramic Art Gallery houses the Anthony Shaw collection, imaginatively displayed as it was in his home with furniture, his wallpaper and fireplace, a great place to browse and unravel the layers of his vast collection. The opposite side of the gallery is filled with a ‘rainbow wall of pots’ showing off the gallery’s stunning ceramic collection….one to return to time and time again as one look would not be enough to take in the magnitude of all that is on display.
The Upper North Gallery has been chosen for York born artist-in-residence Mark Hearld, to bring his eclectic personality to a collection curated by him from artefacts from The Yorkshire Museum,The Castle Museum and York Art Gallery. His exhibition is entitled ‘The Lumber Room - Unimagined Treasures’ . When he heard the story by Saki as a teenager, Mark Hearld had always been intrigued by the idea of a locked room containing treasures beyond imagination, he wanted to and has succeeded in creating the excitement and wonder on obtaining the key to the room and seeing the forbidden treasures for the first time. The wonderfully diverse mix of treasures in this ‘Lumber Room’ is full of art, toys, taxidermy,costumes and too many more wonders to mention! His own work is also on display including especially made ceramic hand decorated horses and beautiful collages. In this exhibition, Mark Hearld has mirrored his own personal living space (if you have never visited his home during York Open Studios it is a ‘must do’ for art lovers and collectors).
This is a really special exhibition to celebrate the new phase of York Art Gallery, and York as a city is incredibly fortunate to have such a wonderful new resource, even in light of the debate over admission charging. Perhaps the bigger debate - that art is knowledge and should be free for all to benefit from - but the reality is that the situation sadly reflects the politics of the day.
The new cafe franchise has been awarded to the fabulous Cafe No.8. The buffet lunch they provided last week was sublime, and I’m sure their new premises will be as popular and successful with gallery visitors as with their loyal customers in Gillygate. A great decision for food lovers.York Art Gallery