In the year of her retirement, York Museums Trust chief executive Janet Barnes has announced that York Art Gallery will charge for entry once it reopens. She tells STEPHEN LEWIS why – and also looks back on her 13 years in charge.

WHEN York Art Gallery reopens on Yorkshire Day visitors will, for the first time in more than a decade, have to pay to get in.

Let’s rephrase that slightly. Visitors from outside York will definitely have to pay.

If you live in York and have a York card...well, that hasn’t been decided yet. But you might well have to.

There will be some meaningful conversations to be held with whoever is in charge of the city council after the elections, says Janet Barnes, the chief executive of the York Museums Trust.

But the reality is that, in this age of continuing austerity, not much in life is going to be free any more.

In February, it was announced that the Museums Trust’s grant from the city council was to be slashed by £500,000: leaving just £600,000 a year in council funding. Three years ago, it was £1.5 million.

Dr Barnes, who will be retiring in November, doesn’t blame the city council. She is grateful to the authority for funding the Trust – set up 13 years ago to take over the running of the York’s municipal museums and art gallery – to the tune of more than £1 million a year for the first 10 years of its life. That enabled it to find its feet.

But cuts to arts and heritage budgets are happening everywhere, not just in York, she points out. And with austerity set to continue after the election, organisations like the Museums Trust are going to have to stand on their own two feet more, and learn to operate more like businesses. “That’s how we will survive.”

The Trust already raises about £3m a year through entry charges at the Yorkshire and Castle Museums.

From August, the art gallery will essentially be on the same footing as the two museums.

Under-16s accompanied by an adult will continue to get in free. For other non-York visitors, however (and, potentially, depending on how those talks with the council go, for York Card holders as well) there will be a charge of £7.50 for admission.

The Trust – which introduced free entry to the gallery in 2002 – hopes that rather than paying for entry just to the art gallery itself, visitors will take out a year’s membership. This will cost £22, and will give visitors free entry for a year to the art gallery, the Yorkshire Museum and the York Castle Museum. It’s effectively an extension of the dual-entry ticket for the Yorkshire and Castle Museums, says Dr Barnes.

With the help of some Arts Council funding, there will also be discounted, half price entry for 17 to 24-year olds, those on income support and certain other benefits.

York Press:

An artist’s impression of the upper floor of the new-look York Art Gallery

Charging for entry to the gallery is all a bit of an experiment, Dr Barnes admits, and the Trust is well aware that there will be those who will be unhappy. When free entry was introduced in 2002, visitor numbers soared by 200 per cent in the first year. The last thing the Trust wants to see is visitor numbers falling again. But it feels it has little choice.

“It’s a conundrum,” Dr Barnes admits. “We hope that we have pitched it about right. We will be monitoring it very closely, and we’ll be interested to see the reaction!”

The good news is that there will not be any job cuts. In fact, the Trust will be taking on an extra 11 full-time equivalent staff, on top of the almost 100 it already employs, to cope with the re-opening of the art gallery.

By introducing charges, and looking at other fundraising measures – including hiring out the gallery for events in the evening, and trying to increase takings from the shop – she is confident the Museums Trust will not only survive, but thrive.

“We’re going forward, we’re growing. That’s the plan,” she says. “I think the future is bright, if we can just get over the next couple of years.”


How the finances stack up

THE turnover of the York Museums Trust is about £6 million a year.

Following the latest £500,000 cut in council financing, the council’s contribution is now £600,000.
The Trust raises about £3 million a year through charges, shop sales, events and so on.

In addition, the Arts Council recently agreed to provide £1.23 million a year, although this must be used for projects that will increase use of the Trust’s galleries and museums by those who do not at present use them.  It cannot be used for the day-to-day running costs.

Because there are fewer conditions applied to the council funding, it is this which is used – in addition to income from charges etc – to cover the everyday costs of staff, bills, etc.

That is why the loss of £500,000 of council funding has hit the Trust so hard.

At the moment, entry charges to the Trust’s attractions are as follows:

Castle Museum: Adults £10/Access ticket for those aged 17-24 or on certain benefits, £5/ children under 16 and York Card holders free.

Yorkshire Museum: Adults £7.50/ Access ticket £4/ children under-16 and York Card holders free.
Art Gallery (before closing for £8 million revamp), free.

A dual ticket costing £12 gives access to both the Yorkshire Museum and Castle Museum for a year.

The proposed new charges would see single entry to the Yorkshire and Castle Museums remain unchanged. However, adults would have to pay £7.50 for entry to the gallery, while an Access ticket would cost £4.

It has not yet been decided whether charges will apply to York Card holders.

A £22 YMT Card, will give free entry to both museums and gallery for a year.


York Press:

The Four Elements Earth hangs in Jubbergate as part of The Grand Tour of York exhibition

‘Stolen’ painting caused real stir

JANET Barnes has lots of great memories from her 13 years in charge of the York Museums Trust. But the case of the “stolen” Rembrandt has to be one of the best.

It was in 2008. “This man came running into the art gallery, saying ‘There’s a Rembrandt in the street!’ Somebody do something!” she recalls. He was perplexed at how calm everyone in the gallery seemed about the theft, until someone kindly explained that it wasn’t a real Rembrandt that he had seen, but a reproduction.

The night before, art gallery staff had quietly put up all over the city 25 full-size replicas of great works of art.

It was an outdoor exhibition that came to be known as the Grand Tour.

It had been introduced quietly overnight as a surprise. It proved a massive success. “And it has been my favourite project!” admits Dr Barnes.

The 63-year-old chief executive of the York Museums Trust, who recently announced she will be retiring later this year, has many highlights to choose from.

She came to York fresh from a job as the director of the Crafts Council in London having, before that, spent many years with the museums and galleries service in Sheffield.

The York Museums Trust had just been set up as a charitable independent organisation that would take over York’s municipal museums and galleries.

The idea was that an independent charity would be able to tap into sources of funding not available to the council – and would also be more able to innovate. And so it has proved.

Dr Barnes hit the ground running. Her first quick fix was to introduce free admission to the art gallery – a decision which saw visitor numbers soar by 200 per cent in the first year. In 2004/5, the gallery was given a £445,000 makeover. It had been a dowdy, provincial gallery which did not do justice to the fine artworks it contained. The main exhibition space was divided up by internal partitions. “It had low ceilings, and a stained oatmeal carpet, with waves on it!”

The partitions were swept away, that carpet was removed, and a new, lighter, more open main exhibition area was created.

In 2009, an even more dramatic, £2.2 million refurbishment took place, of the Yorkshire Museum.

False ceilings were removed so that natural light could once again flood in through a hidden glass-panelled ceiling.Internal partitions put in by previous curators were stripped away and the medieval abbey ruins in the basement were reconnected with the main ruins of St Mary’s Abbey next door when windows were opened up to allow views.

There have also been refits and new exhibitions at the York Castle Museum (including the Sixties exhibition in 2008, the extension of the museum’s Victorian street, Kirkgate, and the major 1914: When The World Changed Forever exhibition which opened last year); the conversion of York St Mary’s in Coppergate into a contemporary arts venue and the appointment of a garden manager at Museum Gardens. “I don’t know why we didn’t do that before!” Dr Barnes says.

York Press:

 The crawl-through tunnel of the British trench at the Castle Museum’s 1914: When The World Changed Forever exhibition

It has all culminated in the £8 million refurbishment of the York Art Gallery. The gallery will re-open on August 1 – Yorkshire Day – after being closed for 31 months.

Dr Barnes has been intending to retire for some time. She’s been working part-time for 18 months: but was determined to see the art gallery refurbishment through first. “I couldn’t have gone before that!” she says.

With the decision to introduce charges at the gallery once it re-opens, she has taken a tough and potentially unpopular decision – but one which should hopefully help make the Museums Trust more financially independent and hence secure in future.

She plans to step down in November. The search is already on for her successor. An announcement is likely in June, with whoever is appointed taking over in September, to allow for a hand-over period.

Whoever is appointed, one of their biggest challenges – apart from continuing to ensure the financial stability of the Trust – will be to seek funding for a major overhaul of the Castle Museum.

“Any such major project can take as long as seven years, from initial idea through fundraising to completion,” she says: so it isn’t something she could take on herself.

“But the Castle is our big earner. It is something I hope my successor will look at.”