Tuesday 15 March 2016

"It actually feels like they don't mind having people in": a review of York Art Gallery

As a blogger you know you're going to enjoy your visit just that bit more when, upon arrival, you ask at reception about whether or not you can take photos and they reply: "Yes, yes, of course. Just no flash."

Of course? OK then ... let me just remove my lens cap ...

And this was just the start of what turned out to be an exceptionally welcoming visit to York Art Gallery.
The front of York Art Gallery
Before we visited [in February 2016] there were only three things I could have told you about the place:
  1. That their new Centre of Ceramic Arts [CoCA] currently contained an installation of ceramics called Manifest: 10,000 Hours that I absolutely had to see. Hence making the trip. 
  2. That, due to funding cuts, since their refurbishment in 2015 they were now charging an entry fee. And ...
  3. That the only work I could remember from their collection from previous visits, sometime in the last 20 years, was a large religious triptych. 
All of which, in some way, had their effect on this latest visit.

Before you join me on the tour I'll just mention that this is a long post but it's one worth sticking with if:
  • you're a fan of art/ceramics.
  • you're a lover of 'old tat', junk, and miscellany [you're going to love it!!].
  • you're looking for a cultural yet child friendly place to visit in the North [but if you don't have kids ... please don't let that deter you. I'm usually completely put off by that phrase too, but in this case, it's different. Honestly.] 
  • or if you simply fancy an armchair tour of somewhere you've never been [yet]. 
Are you sitting comfortably? Then let's enter the gallery ...
The first gallery space you enter from the ground floor currently holds Sacred Spaces an exhibition which "considers how the decoration of places of worship fostered new techniques and styles of painting, and generated new ideas about the meaning of art". And while none of the works were exactly the triptych I had remembered from years ago, many of the Italian Renaissance altarpieces are all drawn from the same collection. [Clearly you can take the girl out of the church, but not the church out of the girl].

Alongside those Renaissance pieces Sacred Spaces also features contemporary religious art, including this sculpture of Saint Sebastian:
Me photobombing Claire Curneen's sculpture.
Meanwhile another of the stand out pieces is the installation 'Halo' by Susie MacMurray which features thousands of lengths of gold plated wire fixed directly into the gallery wall to create a diffuse glowing effect worthy of its name.
You can see more images on the artist's site here.
And the idea of exhibiting traditional and contemporary pieces alongside one another is an overarching theme of the entire gallery; both in terms of works on display and architecture and design.

For example, here's a traditional balustrade/picture-rail/oil painting vista on the first floor landing:
But turn around ...
York Art Gallery gift shop
... and through a floor-to-ceiling glass panel you can take in the clean bright and modern atrium and gift shop.

Or how about the contrast between two of my favourite representations of the human body in the gallery: from this traditional oil painting of an old lady sleeping [in the Representing Status exhibition]:
... to the more abstract soft sculpture 'NUD4' by Sarah Lucas [of the notorious Young British Artist movement]:
I don't know if this new/old combination counts as 'something for everybody' ... but it's certainly a good start. Especially if you want to visit with someone who doesn't share the exact same taste in art as you. Modern art lovers and traditionalists alike could find something to enjoy here.

[I'm fortunate in that James and I tend to like similar things, particularly modern art and sculpture, in particular, meaning neither of us have to put up with anyone mumbling "I could make that" while the other feels obliged to hurry up and leave; or make a scene in public!]

But the gallery's all-encompassing  approach doesn't stop there. I noticed several other ways in which the gallery makes its visitors welcome:
  • You can borrow drawing equipment to take around the gallery with you, in case the muse strikes! 
  • Many of the gallery spaces contain an interactive activity for children [and not just children!] but not in a bolted-on theme park-y way, the activities fit well with the exhibitions.
  • One space even had pictures on the skirting boards, at adult knee height, presumably to entertain toddlers [or artistically inclined mice].
  • There are plenty of places to pause, sit, and take your time within the gallery. Including sofas individually chosen to suit the style of each gallery area [more evidence that everything has been carefully designed during its refurbishment].
  • And I heard the lady at reception inform a woman in a wheelchair that the gallery was fully accessible.  
Furthermore, you know how I have a thing for heads? Well, imagine my joy at finding this beautiful giant wooden wonder [which is much like the wooden wig-form I have at home] on display:
And then imagine my additional joy ... at being able to touch it! 
This is one of several, clearly labelled, Hands On exhibits which encourage you to get up close and personal with the work. How often do you see that?

Well if, like us, you head to the Claire Twomey Manifest: 10,000 hours installation you'll see it again.
While you can't actually touch any of the 10,000 ceramic bowls displayed so impressively en-masse [at least, I don't think you can ... so I wouldn't try it unless you hear otherwise!] what was noticeable was its lack of notices ...

As I mentioned a few weeks back in my February Month in Numbers post, alongside displaying 10,000 bowls this installation also displays a defiance of preciousness.
  • There are no obvious warnings not to get too close. 
  • No instructions to keep away if you're carrying a big bag [and I always am]. 
  • No barriers preventing you getting as close as you want to these delicate items. 
Yes parents, you read that right, there are no barriers preventing you - and your beloved bundles of sprinting, hurtling, energy - from getting as close as you want to these thousands of delicate [infinitely breakable] works of art. 

My parents used to say I could knock over a glass placed on the centre spot of an empty football pitch. And there's something I'd like to say in reply to that ... 

Look at me now Mr & Mrs Kirk.

Look. At. Me. Now.
Look at how close you can get! And I didn't break a single one.

I found the gallery's trust in its visitors' decorum, fine motor skills, and capacity to child-wrangle, rather touching. The lack of a barrier really added to the appreciation of the scale of the work and its ability to inspire awe

Perhaps it's something like how some councils remove road markings to force drivers into paying more attention to their surroundings. Without barriers you're forced to approach this vast creation with care and close attention. But, once you're close-up, you can appreciate its scale on a more intimate level:
If you're interested to see the practical logistics behind the installation of this serene and beautiful work then click over to view the brilliant time lapse video which shows its construction

As someone who struggles to put 4 cereal bowls back in the cupboard without some element of juggling and mild slapstick peril ... I'm awed at the competence on display in arranging 10,000 of them. 

Now let's move away from the gloriously light bright atrium/mezzanine space [making sure we move away carefully and keeping tight hold of that big bag as we turn] ... and into somewhere altogether cosier and a lot more domestic in scale:
A curator told us that this particular space has been designed to look like a home interior because the collector of the works on display, Anthony Shaw, was seeking to donate his collection to a gallery that would display them in a domestic setting. And after everything I'd already felt about this relaxed, friendly space, it wasn't surprising to hear that York Art Gallery/CoCA took him up on this offer. It seems a perfect meeting of minds.

So here are dozens of ceramics and paintings shown, not behind glass, not locked away where you can't hear them breathe, but as part of the beauty in everyday life.
For me this space demonstrates possibility, even democracy, in art. It says 'Hey, look, this is how you can live alongside art. Every day. If you've got a wall and some shelves then you've got a gallery too.'

That's cheering, right?
Cute/scary creature by Kerry Jameson
 And then, as if I wasn't happy enough, there was this: The Wall of Pots:
A 17 metre display of ceramics dating from Roman times to modern day; not that they're arranged in chronological order. No. Instead they're arranged ... wait for it ... be still my rainbow-arranging-heart: they're arranged in colour order!!!! 
Let's all just pause now to take in the glory of that statement.

This is so far removed from the cabinets of other museums and galleries in which everything is labelled from this or that period through history, where you feel you're meant to educate yourself about what happened when and where.
  • Here you could almost be forgiven for thinking that they just want you to appreciate these items for their beauty. 
  • For their aesthetic deliciousness, their joyful life-enhancing attractiveness. 
  • For the very reasons that many of the artists will have made the pieces in the first place.  And I for one won't be arguing with that.
Now then, before we move into the next gallery I need to warn you that if, like me,you're already a bit over-excited at how great this place is ... you might need to take a breath, and brace yourself for more excitement.

[Mainly I don't want you getting strange coloured blobs in your eye like I did after my visit to Monkey World about 10 years ago. Yes, it may have been a migraine, but equally it may have been brought on by sheer delirium, because: chimps! orangutans! gibbons! etc. Either way ... I want to save you the worry and the hospital appointment where two consultants investigate the back of your eye, which is about as much fun as it sounds. #TrueStory]
An old shop sign on display in The Lumber Room.
Right then, if our loins are now suitably girded then we'll move into The Lumber Room:
Rarely does a sign live up to the heights of its promise like this one does:
Remember that museum you loved when you were were a child? Probably the first one you were taken to. The one that felt mysterious, higgledy-piggeldy, random, and fantastical. The one that had a story book feel, where you could imagine the exhibitions coming to life? Well this is it.

Artist Mark Hearld has recreated exactly that kind of nostalgic treasure trove here.
After being given access to the collection stores of the gallery and of various other local museums Hearld has curated a wonderfully intriguing display of miscellaneous items presented in striking combinations. There's a row of red military jackets hanging next to a row of beautiful black vintage capes arranged above a row of old portraits which in turn hang above a row of carousel horses.
There are original ceramics, assemblage, paintings and collage by Hearld alongside taxidermy birds and fish.
And there's everything from vintage shop signs [that fabulous pair of glasses above], to buttons, cut-out paper theatres, and 19th Century domed floral arrangements:
And - crafty friends - there were scrapbooks. Scrapbooks!!! Vintage ones alongside ones belonging to the artist:

It's like they knew I was coming [although, if that were truly the case, they might have erected a barrier around all those ceramic bowls...].

And so ... you might have guessed by now that I enjoyed the several hours I spent in York Art Gallery.  In fact my exact words to James as were heading back down the stairs were:

"It actually feels like they don't mind having people in".

And that shouldn't really be a surprise should it? That a public space doesn't mind having the public there. And yet ... how many times have you felt awkward in one? Like you're just one raised voice, or camera click, or swing of a rucksack away from being evicted.

But this gallery feels inclusive; like they're glad to have you. That visitors are an integral part of the gallery ... not an annoyance who ought to be silently corralled from room to room. That they want your visit a to be both uplifting, inspiring, interesting, varied and enlightening but also relaxed and comfortable too:
Oh. That arrangement of paintings on the left is everything. "It's like what they call a 'gallery wall' in interior design" I said to James and as soon as I said it I realised where the term originally came from. #itsawall #inagallery  
I know that trying to cater to everyone doesn't always hit the mark; it can dilute an experience until what remains is almost meaningless. But not here.

York Art Gallery is a serious gallery in content, in it's collections, it's curation, its design ... it's just not serious in atmosphere.

It allows you to enjoy some incredible works of art while feeling perfectly at home. Maybe it's the entry fee, maybe the fact you're paying to be there has made them feel it needs to offer value for money, or maybe it's good old Yorkshire hospitality ... either way, it really does feel like they don't mind having you in.


If anything in my review has inspired you to set out on a special trip to York then please check with the gallery regarding specific exhibition dates beforehand. I would hate for you to be disappointed.

Happy gallerying!


This is in no way a paid for promotion. I am not connected to York Art Gallery in any way and they have not asked me for this review. They don't even know I exist. [I know, it's a harsh truth, but there it is, life's tough.]

I would say that I paid for my ticket myself except I didn't; James did.

I told him I'd pay for both of us but then, when I got there, I didn't have enough cash on me, so I said I'd pay him later. Which I've yet to do.

Therefore, if there's actually anyone in this scenario who has paid for a good review then, it isn't the gallery, it's him, and so: "I find James to be a very decent fellow who, if you're lucky, will not only drive you to York to take you to an art gallery, he'll also pay your entry fee. Furthermore he'll even treat you to tea and carrot cake with ginger and mascarpone frosting in the cafe beforehand too*. I can't recommend him highly enough."

*This offer is subject to terms and conditions. Such as ... whether or not you're me.


  1. Looks like a fab place to visit. I agree about the lack of a barrier on the ceramics though and feel taking my lively toddler would literally be like a bull in a china shop!

  2. My goodness, what a wonderfully rich post - reflects the gallery very well, Julie. You have really made me want to go ... The 'domestic area' reminds me of Kettles' Yard in Cambridge - I love seeing 'art' in non-gallery settings. Mark Heald's collection looks great fun and wonderfully eclectic. Thank-you for a great read!

  3. Best disclosure ever! :-) This does indeed look amazing. I want to go!

  4. I love York and now there is one more reason to go back as soon as I can... what an amazing place! thank you for your review.

  5. What a fantastic review of a fascinating place. If I didn't live so far away, I'd love to visit it (even if I did have to pay for myself!)

  6. Thank you so much for this review Julie. I've been to York often but never to this place and now its definitely on my list of things to do.

  7. Wonderful! I am a newish reader to your blog, Julie, and as usual when I read one of your posts, I am edified and laugh much. And I thank you for both.

  8. Saved this post for when I had time to properly appreciate it. Definitely a post to savour, much like your Gallery experience. Good on them - just wish I lived a bit closer to York!

  9. I have been to York a couple of times but missed the gallery - it looks fabulous. I like it that they let you take photos, often galleries don't allow it. I love a good gallery/ museum.

  10. Oh what a timely time to catch up on your blog! It was the title that drew me in ;) I am OBSESSED with Mark Hearld at the mo - having just discovered the joys (we'll not think about the claw hands I'm developing) of lino print. Am probably going to do my final FINAL piece for my course in lino print - I SO want his book and was just reading about this exhibition yesterday! Muchos jealous but thank you so much for the armchair tour :)

    Your disclaimer made me proper LOL!


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