Entrance charges proposed for York City Art Gallery will severely damage culture in the city, protesters warned today.

Richard Green, curator of York City Art Gallery, with one of the works from last year's Canaletto exhibition

The Friends of York City Art Gallery have opposed City of York Council plans for a £2 charge for non-residents.

They claim it would block touring exhibitions such as last year's one of the works of Canaletto, which attracted 50,000 visitors in just three months. Such exhibitions only visit galleries where entrance is free.

They also say the move would destroy access to art and damage the gallery's reputation.

Susan Torr, honorary secretary of the Friends, said: "The Friends object strongly and find these proposals completely unacceptable. This would alter the whole status of the art gallery. Touring exhibitions are the bread and butter of the gallery, and there will be quite a change if they stopped. For a provincial gallery like York, to do this would be just ridiculous."

She said workshops for both adults and schoolchildren, which accompany many exhibitions, would be lost, causing damage to education in the city.

"This would not have an enormous impact on people's purses, but it would have a huge impact on the gallery," she said.

"It would restrict access to art to the gallery's own collection. We rely on touring exhibitions to bring art to people who aren't able to get to other parts of the country. This proposal would stop them from enjoying it."

Charging non-residents would also damage tourism in the city because many visitors expect attractions like the gallery to be free, she said.

The proposal was made as part of a cost-cutting package aimed at making up a £4.7 million deficit faced by City of York Council in the next year's budget.

The leisure services committee will discuss the idea on Thursday. Chairman Bob Scrase said: "We haven't made a decision yet and we will be taking views between now and Thursday, which will definitely be taken into account. "It is certainly not our aim to damage art in the city."

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