York Art Gallery has opened its doors for the first time since undergoing an £8 million transformation. The gallery, which has been closed for redevelopment for the past two and a half years, has changed significantly, visible even before entering the space. A statue of William Etty has been faithfully restored and stands boldly and brightly in front of the gallery’s facade, hinting to the shifts that have taken place within. Walking into the lobby, which is now flooded with light, is now quite an experience. A Victorian ceiling is exposed, white and sleek, ensuring that visitors are instantly struck by a sense of renewal and progress.
Janet Barnes, Chief Executive of York Museums Trust, warmly greeted us and made a point of gesturing to the amount of space this redevelopment has opened up for the city centre. Previously, York Art Gallery used only a fraction of its grounds – much of which were wrecked from bombing during World War II. Now it is using 60% more of its available space, while a whole new garden is being formed behind the gallery – set to be used for growing food, showing films and installations. The possibilities are extensive.
What is so exciting about the gallery’s transformation is the brightness of the building and the enthusiastic atmosphere in the place. There is a sense of revived possibility all around: in the creation of the Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA), the exciting curation of contemporary sculpture, installation and ceramics across the gallery spaces, and the newly-formed learning space that sits at the very front of the gallery, implying that community education and enrichment is at the forefront of the organisation’s agenda. There are ‘hands on’ pieces dotted across all of the exhibitions, making way for kinetic and fun learning experiences.
Susie MacMurray’s ‘Halo’ quietly shimmers from afar amidst early religious paintings from the Lycett Green Collection. ‘Sacred Spaces’ is an exhibition curated by Eloise Donnelly, located firmly at the heart of the building, highlighting in a sense the longevity of the art gallery and its passion for painting. Step closer and MacMurray’s installation comes to life. Gesturing to the works around it, this meticulously crafted piece dazzles in the light – an ungraspable, golden enigma. Close by, Claire Curneen’s sobering figurative piece establishes a dialogue with religious paintings and icons, bathed in MacMurray’s halo light.
Upstairs, the gallery dedicates two large spaces to ceramics, proudly introducing its brand new Centre of Ceramic Art. York Art Gallery has a history of showcasing ceramics, having been ‘collecting collectors’ for some years, most recently offering a series of Lars Tharp exhibitions with great success. CoCA presents the collections of W.A. Ismay, Henry Rothschild and Eric Milner-White along with contemporary and modern work from Anthony Shaw’s collection. Today, CoCA consists of over 5,500 ceramic pieces that effectively tell the story of British Studio Ceramics. Works by key makers including David Lloyd-Jones and Lucie Rie are displayed in glass cabinets atop a plethora of pieces by makers inspired or influenced by the revered ceramists.
This will become a fantastic place of study and sheer enjoyment for makers, collectors and ceramic enthusiasts. Clare Twomey’s ‘Manifest: 10,000 Hours’ towers above the space in homage to dedicated makers and absorbed collectors alike. The installation is striking upon arrival into the gallery – its bold, dark frames and slipcast bowls almost reaching the luminous ceiling, drawing the gaze upwards, cleverly beckoning us to take in the transformation of this space. Clare is renowned for producing thoughtful, engaging large-scale installations – this commission sets York Art Gallery’s aspirations for its new CoCA in stone.
“I used to show the collection in my parents’ house. I love to learn from work – hopefully this will be a space that people will feel they never want to leave”. – Anthony Shaw
Anthony Shaw’s fine collection of modern and contemporary ceramics, sculpture and mixed media work is housed in the next room. Pieces by artists including Gordon Baldwin, Jim Malone and Kerry Jameson are presented in a format inspired by Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, encouraging visitors to feel at home and to stay a while – to spend time looking, examining and learning from the work on display. Anthony’s collection began with pots, but soon became much more sculptural. The collector is interested in the notion of living with art, and in pieces being at home surrounded by ordinary objects.
Within the same space, a ‘wall of pots’ is displayed, to show off the gallery’s extensive and ever-growing ceramic collection. Work is not offered signage here, creating a sense of mystery and wonder around CoCA – its breadth, history, and, most excitingly, the future it may have for increasing engagement with pottery and ceramic art.
Katherine A. Caddy
York Art Gallery and its Centre of Ceramic Art officially open to the public on Saturday 1st August 2015. For further information, please see the gallery’s website: http://www.yorkartgallery.org.uk/
Katherine A. Caddy is a writer and artist based between Cambridge and York, UK. She is the Founder of Yorkshire Art Journal and the new Assistant Editor of Ceramic Review.