York's main art gallery is about to shut - but art lovers don't have to worry. It will re-open next year after extensive modernisation.

YORK City Art Gallery will close on June 6. Unlike the putative shutdown of York Barbican Centre, it has a definite re-opening date for its new look: January 29 2005, the Residents' First weekend in York.

While the refurbishment work is undertaken with the aid of a £272,700 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, York Museums Trust will open a new contemporary, if temporary, art venue at York St Mary's, Castlegate.

This former church, next to Jorvik and near to Impressions Gallery, previously housed The York Story and latterly Walking With Beasts, and now it will be seen in a new light. Or new lights, plural, because St Mary's will host a newly commissioned exhibition of installations on the theme of light from July until the end of October.

Janet Barnes, chief executive of York Museums Trust, says: "It will be a contemporary art space, and I say 'contemporary art space' because the internal space is really rather wonderful and, when I first saw it, I thought artists would love to use it for site-specific exhibitions.

"At that time, I said 'Oh, we will never have the money for such a project' but then we were granted revenue for contemporary art.

"Revenue funding for regional art had been on the agenda for some considerable time but only now has it come in through changes at the Arts Council, where previously we have been able to apply only for project funding."

The new grant is on a spiralling scale: £30,000 for 2003/4, £60,000 for the present financial year and £80,000 for 2005/6.

"It's a substantial amount that allows us to do something significant with it," says Janet.

"The fact that you know you money will be coming in over the three years means you can build on it. It has now given us the opportunity to pilot a contemporary art venue, when there has been no focal point for contemporary art in York beyond Impressions despite the city having a lot of art activity. Now we have this money, we have the chance to make something new."

The proximity of Impressions, the photographic and digital arts gallery just around the corner, gives rise to the prospect of a liaison between the two galleries.

"In the long term, maybe we could link the two for an exhibition on a joint theme, and educationally there is potential too," Janet says.

The new art space at York St Mary's will undergo preparation for exhibitions under the guidance of independent curator and consultant Paul Bradley, from Huddersfield, who has worked for the Henry Moore Foundation at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Dean Clough, Halifax.

"When looking at St Mary's, I thought how do you make sense of this space? So that's why we have Paul to address problems such as the horrible lighting rig. He said you don't want to make into a white cube space, you don't want to put in walls but present the space as it is, so the artwork has to be specific to that space," Janet says.

She stresses that York St Mary's will not be a hire hall for artists to hold exhibitions.

"No, we will invite artists to do site-work specific to that space, and it is more interesting than somewhere such as the Baltic gallery in Gateshead because of its position, its history and its light," she says.

"Artists always want to have the opportunity to work where they can use and articulate a set space; this will give them that chance in York."

There are also plans to hold a series of additional events.

"We want people to use the space for things such as readings, dance, musical events and workshops, to activate and energise a space that no one has seen in this form because it was used for The York Story and before that was an active church," says Janet.

"However, it will not be an arts centre but a contemporary art space in which the related events are art orientated."

At present York St Mary's is too cold and damp for winter use.

"However, I think we will create interest with this project and hopefully attract further funding to really spark people's imagination about how it could be used, and then the sky is the limit," says Janet.

"York St Mary's has the tallest church spire in York; the building is in an ideal position; people can tip out of Jorvik or the shops to go in. There'll be no admission charge and it will be a different experience to anything else on offer in the city."

In June, work will begin on refurbishing York Art Gallery in Exhibition Square, and the square itself could become part of the gallery.

"York Museums Trust hopes to create a caf in the foyer which will spill out on to Exhibition Square, as well as a new shop at the back of the ground floor, and these plans will be subject to acquiring planning permission," says Janet.

"One of the main things we want to do is to get more people through the doors and one of the ways to do this is to have a caf in the foyer. The expansion into the square would have to be seasonal but in good weather, how lovely to sit out there, with the gallery behind you, King's Manor beside you, and the Minster and the De Grey Rooms too. What a sight."

The trust worked in consultation with Leeds architects Beauman Lyons to draw up concept drawings for the changes at the gallery.

"We want to open up the gallery and attract more people, and the way we thought we would do that was to open up the ground floor.

"The main, central gallery space will house a changing exhibition drawn from the gallery collection or brought in from outside, so it gives us the chance to have a very accessible exhibition space, whereas at present the facilities for disabled access are just not good enough," says Janet.

This gallery and its floor will be refurbished, a new lighting rig and new wall coverings will be installed; the public loos will be improved; and the present temporary exhibition space will house an exhibition of quilts from York Museum Trust's textiles collection.

The gallery's collection will be re-displayed by curator of art Caroline Worthington and will be hung thematically rather than in its present chronological order.

"There is nothing like re-presenting your collection for you to have the chance to look at it again and see 'old friends' in a different context and a new light," says Janet.

The shop's re-location to the top end of the south gallery will free up the existing space beside the foyer for use as a learning room, and in a separate project, £308,000 will be provided over two years by the Renaissance In The Regions scheme for educational work involving the creation of six new jobs.

It will also bring together the new facilities, and should create a more welcoming York Art Gallery.

"I like the idea that it will be a comfy space where people may linger in the gallery, the shop or the caf. What we're trying to do is make it a place where people linger, come with their friends, relax and talk and even come here for corporate events," Janet says.

"There should always be something to see and do, and by making these changes we should be able to create an environment where I can approach the Heritage Lottery Fund and say 'We have all this in place, now give us the big dosh for capital funding'.

"This gallery is a good, safe bet because we have the content, we have the collections; we're not planting something new but growing what we have."

When placed against the £46 million poured into turning a disused flour mill into the Baltic gallery, £272,700 is a mere drop in the (Baltic) sea. "This money is not meant to solve any problems at York Art Gallery, so much as create a demand," says Janet.

Watch this art space.

Updated: 11:13 Friday, April 23, 2004