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Behind the scenes of York Art Gallery revamp
Behind the boarded-up exterior, York Art Gallery is beginning to find its new shape as the transformation continues. CHARLES HUTCHINSON is given an exclusive look behind the scenes.
EVEN amid the dust, the exposed pipes, the impromptu scrawled public art of the closing-day open day, and the newly revealed faded wallpaper and granite columns, it is the light that hits you first.
York Art Gallery has not looked like this in more than half a century. After 12 weeks of clearing, asbestos removal and gutting by contractors, the building is open to the roof, a view that previously had been restricted to looking through a door in the Little Gallery.
Like The Secret Garden, or Alice tumbling into Wonderland or the wardrobe to Narnia, it held the promise of discovering something more.
Now, looking upwards to the Victorian wooden arches still in good repair, you wonder why it was ever shut off, hidden from view, the art gallery compacted on to two floors, too many of its gallery walls as dark as a womb, but that was the fad of the time.
The 2005 rearrangement of the galleries showed the possibilities of white cube and glass in the main exhibition space, relocated to the ground floor. It turned out to be short-lived, but its impact has lived on because the £8 million new development that will open in spring 2015 will involve glass, white walls, re-opened windows and arches and 60 per cent more exhibition space.
Glass walls will allow you to see into the main gallery as you enter from Exhibition Square, the café now to be moved to the side in part of the old city archives building that will be an important new addition to the gallery’s portfolio.
“Previously we had to wheel in paintings at the front, sometimes with the public in the building, which was not ideal, though it probably made their visit more exciting,” says Laura Turner, York Museums Trust’s curator of art.
In all, there will be three ground-floor exhibition galleries, including one for work from the art gallery’s learning programme in the former shop.
On the newly created mezzanine floor in the roof space above the main gallery will be the Centre For British Studio Ceramics, with display cases on either side that can house 1,000 artefacts at any one time. On this floor too will be a newly built South Gallery to house more ceramics, including a “wall of pots”, and an external wall of ceramic tiles to distinguish the new building from the old. The existing Burton Gallery will continue to show paintings from the York Museums Trust collection and the Pole Gallery will become another fine art gallery.
The space beyond this gallery will become a learning studio. “We want it to feel like an artist’s studio rather than a classroom,” says Laura.
A balcony will be built at the back, leading to reclaimed gardens, where once stood huts for troops in transit. Now demolished, they will be replaced by an Artists’ Garden, a flexible area that leads up to the city walls.
“The intention is to create an atmosphere like the Romantic ruins with rambling roses in the Pre-Raphaelite era,” says Laura.
Meanwhile, Alison Pringle, head gardener in the Museum Gardens, is proposing to turn one former bowling green into an “edible wood”, while the other could become a Yorkshire flower garden. A new walkway will link the Museum Gardens to the art gallery.
Back inside, all available space is being maximised. Two new lifts will be introduced; there will be more toilets; and very significantly, the art store is to be revamped and improved, aided by the Friends of York Gallery’s ongoing fund-raising endeavours to bring in £70,000.
“The new facility will be an air-conditioned, high-specification, high-security space that will enable us to loan works from international galleries,” says Laura.
“Storage will be safer and we’ll be able to invite groups to look at works held in the store.”
Gallery staff, temporarily housed in Marygate, will be putting the closure period to good use by collating the gallery’s art and ceramics collections for a research resource that will be available online.
“I would say we’re actually busier than ever at the moment,” says Laura. “This redevelopment project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to be involved in something so special and it’s the realisation of what started to become possible with a £2 million private legacy.”
The National Lottery has provided £3.5 million through Arts Council England, City Of York Council has granted £500,000 and the Anthony Shaw Trust, £400,000, among other donations. A further £900,000 is still outstanding, and the Museums Trust is continuing to seek other funding opportunities.
Looking to the future, the Museums Trust will seek to balance the historic with the contemporary in its exhibition programme. Already, the art gallery is working with the Imperial War Museum and University of York with a view to potential exhibitions and London ceramic artist Clare Twomey is being commissioned for a show.
Closer to home, York print-maker Mark Hearld has been appointed artist-in-residence during the closure period.
“For our opening exhibition, he’ll be bringing together our different collections in a new way as only Mark can,” says Laura. “He’ll be creating an installation and new work in response to our social history, archaeology, natural science and fine and decorative art collections.”
Come the 2015 reopening, York Art Gallery will be a piece of art itself.
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