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October 20, 2016

AAW Day 3: Conservation and Curation Talk

by Zahir

This enjoyable talk from a York Art Gallery representative explained the £8m renovation of the fine Victorian building. The project will “interpret” (as the gallery’s mission statement claimed) the grand Victorian spaces. One of the major changes is the additional floor being built into one of the tallest Victorian rooms, allowing for more artwork to be displayed. It is certainly a risk considering the building is listed.

What is instantly clear is that the project needs a lot more funding – not to mention the initial stages of building to kick-start the renovation. It is universally known that public funding for the arts is being severely cut. The Arts Council earmarked £3.5m from the local budget. The renovation was originally (in the speaker’s words) “bumped up” the local council’s agenda after a private donor entailed his estate to the York Art Gallery. The entailment covers £2m of the renovation. It is obvious that most of the funding will derive from private donations: it perhaps attests that the arts are becoming increasingly pushed off the agendas of local government. The gallery’s limited funds were most apparent when the speaker suggested the struggle to acquire contemporary works. Their art fund last year was a mere £100,000.

Indeed, the renovation is clearly overdue: the ramshackle storage units for the gallery’s 1000 paintings, 270 paper artworks and 500 sculptures was built in the 1970s. For years the gallery has used pieces of foam to prevent valuable works of art have been rubbing together (damaging some original frames) as they are all piled in back-to-back. It’s a crying shame and the refurbishment of the private spaces of the gallery will no doubt be a worthwhile investment – for the health of the works themselves. The speaker mentioned the scratches done to the varnish of the Ramsay portrait, ‘Mrs Morrison’, by visitors meaning that the painting will now be glazed. The art stores seem to be the priority at this stage, perhaps more so than the gallery’s display spaces. This is seemingly justified, considering the current stores have had leaks and dust problems from the air conditioning unit which is astonishingly also in the store. Judging by the pictures in the presentation, it is a sorry state of affairs. The renovation is “preventative conservation”, the speaker said – conservation to “minimise the risk of damage and deterioration.” The new stores will boast roller racks for easy access and glass cabinets for sculptures.

Other changes include a balcony area for visitors and an extension of the existing toilets, both of which anticipate an increase in visiting rates which the speaker suggests is based on the popularity of the Hockney exhibition last year.

The public cost, as well as financial, is incurred in that the York Art Gallery will be closed for two and a half years from December this year. Thirty-four works will go on tour around Yorkshire. Many will be exhibited in three long exhibitions at St. Mary’s gallery. Four paintings will go to the National Gallery, and three to the Tate. Some may be exhibited at Fairfax House and most will sit in deep storage for the coming years.

Though it is a high price to pay, the gallery is in desperate need of attention. It is sure to be worth it in two and a half years’ time.

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