Introducing... A Light Crescendo, the first show at York's new contemporary art space in a church.

First it was a church, St Mary's in Castlegate. Then it housed The York Story for more than 20 years. During Summer 2003 it housed the BBC's Walking With Beasts exhibition. Exit the beast, enter beauty. Courtesy of York Museums Trust, the re-branded York St Mary's will be seen in a new light. Amid the dust of preparations, Charles Hutchinson meets Paul Bradley, the creative force behind York's new contemporary art space and its first exhibition.

Paul, how did you come to be commissioned to provide the new design for St Mary's and to curate the inaugural show?

"I was asked by Janet Barnes, chief executive of York Museums Trust, to come over to York in January. I work from Huddersfield, having worked at Dean Clough in Halifax for ten years until four years ago, and I was formerly an artist but I've since gone into architecture and design.

"Janet was influenced by work I'd done at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where I took a former bothy building and turned it into a contemporary space for a caf in only five weeks."

What have you done to the interior of the church?

"We've worked with the existing fabric and taken it back to that because it's a gorgeous space which had been uncared for ... well, not uncared for but some work had been done in the 1970s that was understandable for the time whereas now we prefer purity in buildings.

"Don't think I'm a traditionalist, I'm not, but you must have respect for a building's materials."

What changes have you made?

"There were large metal barriers throughout the space that were somewhat unsympathetic, so they've gone. We've replaced them with rendered concrete volumes which, in my opinion, blend in with the church stone, and we can 'push' the light off them."

York Art Gallery is closed temporarily for a refurbishment and re-launch. What role will York St Mary's fill?

"We're doing a three-year temporary makeover here. We have only so much money in the budget so we're cutting our cloth accordingly. What we're doing is carrying out an exercise to see if contemporary can work in York in an existing, historical space.

"The hope will be that through this year's project and next year's show we can demonstrate that there is a case for a permanent contemporary arts space in York. You have a powerful university, a good art gallery, but why not a contemporary arts space in line with the Baltic in Gateshead and Tate Liverpool?

"It should be project based rather than just holding exhibitions. Why not have an empty space with facilities so you can put on a dance festival or a sculpture festival?"

What was the inspiration for the first exhibition, A Light Crescendo?

"When I came here in January, the building was very dark and uninviting and the lighting was standard museum lighting: not wrong, so much as people not having the money to do it right. So we decided to have an exhibition on the theme of illumination.

"What we have is a selection of works by contemporary artists, who use light, neon, projections and coloured or reflective surfaces or glass, inspired by the highly colourful surfaces and text engravings of stained glass windows."

Who is featuring in the show?

"Lawrence Weiner, from New York, and Gary Webb have done new works specially for the exhibition. Langlands and Bell, who have been nominated for the 2004 Turner Prize, are using the latest technology in Perspex and acrylic lenses; Jaume Plensa and Michelangelo Pistoletto, from Italy, are exhibiting new works, and we're borrowing works by Angelo Bulloch and David Batchelor from the Arts Council collection.

The day after we open, Jaume Plensa is opening a $16 million permanent work in Millennium Park, Chicago, and he's been commissioned to do a new work for the BBC's new building, so we're featuring major international artists here.

"I'd have liked to have used a local artist but the exhibition has been put together in a comparatively short time, so I've built it around some loans from the Arts Council, then gone to artists who I knew had a knowledge of working in light. But we do have a neon work by West Yorkshire artist Shaun Pickard on a tree outside. It says Unnatural: so it's that combination of a beautiful tree and something unnatural...just like the Coppergate Centre!"

Finally, Paul, why is the exhibition called A Light Crescendo?

"The reason for the title is that it's a play on the word 'crescendo'. It comes from the Italian word 'cresceri', which means gradually building something up. That's what we're doing at York St Mary's."

A Light Crescendo, Art Illuminating York St Mary's, in Castlegate, York, July 23 to October 30. Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 6pm; Thursdays, 11am to 8pm. Admission is free. For more information:

Updated: 15:31 Thursday, July 15, 2004