WHEN she was 11 years old, Reyahn King's family went to live in Tanzania.

Her dad, Robert Bruce King, was a scientist with the British government's Overseas Development Administration. Her mum, Jamela, was a South African-born woman of Cape Malay descent - and a member of the African National Congress (ANC) to boot.

The couple held 'open house' for South African refugees from apartheid: and it was there the young Reyahn first encountered the desperate hunger for culture and heritage that so many people who have been starved of it feel.

"I used to go down in the morning and find people looking at books, and playing records," she says.

That experience had a 'weirdly influential' impact on her. And it helped shape her lifelong belief that culture and heritage should be for everyone.

It was one of the reasons she chose a career in museums and galleries. "What drew me was sharing with other people the enjoyment and learning I get out of heritage, art, history."

This conviction that our art, heritage and history should be for everyone makes the controversy over charging for admission to York's municipal art gallery and museums all the more painful for her.

She took over as chief executive of the York Museums Trust - which runs the city art gallery and the Yorkshire and Castle Museums - late last year.

It was a difficult time to take over, she admits.

Yesterday, the Trust revealed that, in the six months since York Art Gallery reopened, visitor numbers had slumped by 43 per cent compared to the same period before it closed.

Few have any doubt that that is largely because of the decision to charge for entry.

York Press:

York Art Gallery: visitors down 43 per cent

It wasn't Ms King who took that decision. But, while she'd rather not have to charge, she agrees with the decision - insisting the Museums Trust has no choice.

The Trust's council funding was cut from £1.5million in 2013/14 to just £600,000 this year, she says - a cut of £900,000 in two years.

Some way had to be found to make that up.

Income from charges has helped to counterbalance the cuts. "Without charging, the Trust would not be financially viable," she says. "We would prefer not to have to charge. But I think that everybody understands these are times of austerity."

There is a proper national debate to be had about the way we fund our museums and galleries, Ms King concedes. But as things stand, the reality is that here in York - as elsewhere across the country - local authority funding for municipal local galleries and museums is being squeezed.

York Press:

The Museums Trust looks after many treasures - including the York Helmet at the Yorkshire Museum

The pressures are obvious when you look at how the portion of the Museums Trust's funding which comes from the council has shrunk over the years.

In 2002, when the Trust was formed to take over responsibility from the council for running the art gallery and the city's two municipal museums, more than half its funding still came directly from the local authority.

Today, just nine per cent (£600,000) of its near £6million annual income does so (see panel below).

In the circumstances, she says, charging for entry to the art gallery, the Castle Museum and the Yorkshire Museum is the only way to balance the books.

The Trust has a huge responsibility, she points out. It looks after a staggering 1.7 million objects (everything from Victorian wedding dresses to medieval jewellery, Saxon helmets, Roman mosaics and prehistoric fossils such as the icthyosaur in the Yorkshire Museum) and no fewer than 18 buildings (ten of them listed).

York Press:

Another treasure: the Yorkshire Museum's ichthyosaur

It has a duty to maintain these for the city and the nation - as well as to ensure that they are as accessible as possible.

A one-off ticket for the art gallery costs £7.50. But anyone in York with a York Card can buy an annual YMT card giving access to the gallery and both museums for a whole year for £11 - £10 if they pay by direct debit.

"That's really good value," she insists.

People in York will make up their own minds about that, of course. For many, may not be so much about the money as about the principle.

The queues to enter the art gallery at the recent York Residents Weekend proved how hungry people are for culture.

York Press:

Ceramics gallery at the refurbished city art gallery

As a result - and as a compromise - the Museums Trust is planning its own 'residents weekend' at the end of June in which York people will again be able to get into the gallery and the two municipal museums free.

But for now at least there is otherwise no sign of a rethink over those entry charges.

So who is the woman who has inherited this controversy?

Reyahn King grew up in Surrey. From the age of 11, when her family went to Tanzania, she divided her time between there and boarding school in the UK. She studied modern history at Oxford, briefly became a very junior archive assistant at the National Portrait Gallery in London, then went to Boston University in the US to study for a masters degree.

When she returned to the UK, she 'worked for a bit' at the National Gallery: and while there, in 1997, was allowed to 'guest' curate her first real exhibition. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be about.

Her parents had met in South Africa. Her father was a British man who had gone to university there. Her mother, as a 'Cape Malay', was actually descended from Indonesians brought to South Africa by the Dutch as slaves at the end of the 18th century.

The pair met at an illegal mixed race party, and courted - then subsequently married - in secret. "They had to carry out their courtship in the seat of my dad's car - not very romantic, but all they could do," Ms King says.

Little surprise, given that background, that her first exhibition at the National Gallery focussed on Ignatius Sancho, an 18th century London composer, actor and writer who also just happened to be black - and a former slave.

York Press:

Ignatius Sancho

He went on to win fame as a man of letters, became friends with the likes of Laurence Sterne and the actor David Garrick - and was painted by Thomas Gainsborough.

That famous painting formed the centrepiece of Reyahn's exhibition. She also included a harpsichord, because Sancho had written music for the instrument. "And embedded in the floor underneath it were some slave chains," she says.

From the National Gallery she moved to Birmingham Museums and Galleries as curator of prints and drawings; then the Herbert gallery and museum in Coventry; back to Birmingham Museums as a manager; and then, in 2007, joined National Museum Liverpool as director of art galleries.

In 2012, she became head of the West Midlands region of the Heritage Lottery Fund, before coming to York.

Quite a CV. So what drew her here?

You can almost see her thinking 'are you kidding?'

It's a unique city, she says. It isn't just the sheer quality and diversity of the 1.7 million objects held by the art gallery and the two museums - it's also the stunning historical environment they're set in.

York Press:

Museum Gardens: 'walls upon walls, history upon history'

Museum Gardens alone are extraordinary, she says. Somebody once described them, in TripAdvisor, as 'walls built upon walls, history upon history'.

"And I probably shouldn't quote someone from TripAdvisor, but that's absolutely right. In the Gardens you get the opportunity to experience close-up the entire history of York."

She doesn't add - though she could have - that the Gardens are maintained by the Trust for the enjoyment of 1.6 million visitors a year - entirely free of charge...


The Trust Finances

York Museums Trust manages York Art Gallery, the Yorkshire Museum, the Castle Museum, York St Mary's and the Museum Gardens.

It has an annual turnover of about £6 million which, this year, is made up of:

  • £2.4 million from ticket sales (including YMT cards)
  • £600,000 from the city council
  • £1.2 million from the Arts Council
  • the remainder from events, activities, and sales from shops and cafés Since charging was introduced, about 11,000 people have bought YMT cards. Of these, 52 per cent are from York itself, the rest visitors.

Since the art gallery re-opened six months ago, it has had about 41,000 visitors - 43 per cent down on the 81,000 on the six months before the gallery closed, when entry was free. Visitors numbers at the Castle Museum were down 17 per cent and at the Yorkshire Museum seven per cent in the same period.

Entry remains free for under 17s and for York residents aged 17-24.


Plans for the future

Under Reyahn King's predecessor Janet Barnes, there were major refurbishments of both the Yorkshire Museum and the York Art Gallery. Next on the list is the Castle Museum.

Ms King hopes ultimately to 'rejuvenate' the entire complex, creating a new 'link' building between the two main wings of the museum (the old debtors' prison and the former female prison); a new entrance direct into the female prison wing; and a riverside footpath along the Foss behind the museum leading through to the Eye of York. She also hopes to extend the 'feel' of Kirkgate to the rest of the museum, with a more immersive experience, more volunteers in costumes, and better interpretation.

York Press:

Immersive experience: Kirkgate

All of this is several years off, however, she stresses - and will need major capital funding applications, as well as a fund-raising campaign.

In the shorter-term, some major new exhibitions are planned.

These include:

  • Shaping The Body, a major exhibition at the Castle Museum looking at the dangerous fashion lengths we have gone to down the centuries to achieve the 'ideal' body shape. Opens on March 25
  • Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War: an exhibition of paintings by the likes of Paul Nash, Wyndham Lewis and Stanley Spencer documenting the horrors of the First World War, which opens at York Art Gallery also on March 25.