Rebecca Atkinson

To charge or not to charge

Rebecca Atkinson, 19.08.2015
A visit to York Art Gallery
I half expected York Art Gallery to be empty when I visited last week. There’s been a lot of outcry, locally and nationally, over the decision to introduce entry charges following its £8m redevelopment.

Apparently there were protests during the gallery’s opening weekend, but two weeks later and the only people outside were those sheltering from the heavy rain.

Indoors the galleries were busy. I saw a few people querying the charge in the foyer, and at least one couple came in, realised they had to pay, and promptly left again. But in a city as touristy as York, and on a day when even a raincoat was no protection against the weather, paying £7.50 to visit a brand new art gallery probably doesn’t seem much of a hardship.

Full disclaimer: I was there to review the gallery for a future issue of Museums Journal, so I did not have to pay.

Had the circumstances been different, I would have been happy to put my hand in my pocket. But then, not only can I afford to pay, I also have the inclination to do so.

In light of York Art Gallery’s new charges, many commentators in the national press have written both for and against entry charges. The nuances of different museum types and the reasons behind charging have largely been missed in much of this commentary.

Of course, for many people, paying for themselves and possibly their families to go to a museum or art gallery is unaffordable.

But clearly money isn’t the only factor here – national museums’ permanent collections have been free since 2001, and many of them still struggle to broaden audiences beyond the traditional “type”.

This suggests to me that, for a lot of people, a trip to a museum doesn’t rate very highly on their “what would I like to do today” wish list.  

I sympathise with York Museums Trust, which runs the art gallery and says entry charges are “necessary due to the current climate of austerity”.

York City Council will reconsider the issue of charges at the gallery in September. It claims the trust has broken the terms of the building’s lease by charging residents – the trust’s counter claim is that the council has broken the terms of a five-year funding agreement by cutting £100,000 last year and a further £500,000 in April.

It’s hard to believe that there can be a happy ending to this drama. In the meantime, many people may miss out on seeing the new gallery and displays because they are not available for free.

Even if money was no object, when entry charges exist, they present another barrier to the uninitiated.

A review of York Art Gallery will be published in the December issue of Museums Journal