Hidden amongst the the tacky tourist shops, York harbours a number of more original artistic activities. Kirran Shah and Amy Blackmore explore the options
York City is packed with endless sights and attractions; it is possible to spend a week, never mind a day, browsing the galleries and not to see everything. In a search to find some unique cultural attractions, we came across a distinct number of mediocre showrooms desperately trying to sell typically ornamental-clad paintings.
The first of these was York Fine Arts, on Low Petergate, which held a disorganised assortment of Pre-Raphaelite prints, with shots of the Minster and surrounding countryside. The landscape and architecture of York is presented in intricately decorated gold frames – endless appeal for tourists wanting a cheap reminder of their visit to the City. Even though the low ceilings and cosy wooden beams make the setting comfortable and add to York’s array of listed buildings, it is incredibly cramped and makes it almost impossible to distinguish the skilful from the painfully detrimental works of art.
The ceramics and metalwork are alternative presents that you will not find in the consistently plastic tourist shops.
Along with this, our advice is to stay away from The Coppergate Gallery, which sported numerous World Cup prints and flags. However, if you stumble across it, fear not because free access to valuable art is close by. York St. Mary’s Church is the city’s leading contemporary art venue. Currently, it displays ‘Echo,’ an installation by Susie MacMurray, who has taken the beautiful medieval church as a basis for her emotive, contemplative art. She has used hairnets and horsehair from violin bows to construct a vessel of interpellation for the surveyor. Do not be put off by the seamless exterior façade of the Church and instead of being lured in by the misleading bargains of TopShop, take a free perusal around this cherished art space.
There is a tendency to assume that York Art Gallery is the only reputable place for exhibitions in the city, given its freshly decorated new learning facilities and a continental-style café. Despite its permanent collection of art works, the gallery alternates its exhibitions every couple of months to provide York City with up-to-date shows, many from London’s National Gallery, such as ‘Icons and Idols’ running from 1 July to 24 September. This exhibition is linked to ‘The Year of the Portrait’, encouraging more people to gain access to works of art that would normally only be displayed in stately homes, such as Harewood House and Beningborough Hall.
Next on your agenda, another reputable place we recommend is The Braithwaite Gallery in Low Petergate, which was quirky and original. The artist, Mark Braithwaite, can be regularly seen painting in Minster Yard, and if you’re into detailed landscapes of York, executed in a different light, it would be worth visiting. The classic red phone boxes scattered around Yorkshire caught our attention, painted to preserve their lost connections. ‘The fire from Minstergates’ which was Braithwaite’s dramatic ten year commemoration of the 1994 misfortune is a shocking portrayal of the reality of York’s attractions. It provided a refreshing contrast to York Fine Arts which preferred to sugar-coat the Minster with blue skies and tweeting birds guaranteed.
Close by, Image on High Petergate is a very homely and welcoming craft shop – an ideal place for original gifts ranging from cheap prints, photo frames, carefully decorated glass bowls and an assortment of triptych canvas transfer prints. The contemporary minimalistic ‘gallery’ is almost hidden away, but is certainly not elitist and is right next door to the Porta Dextra Gallery, another contemporary craft shop selling unique handmade crafts.
Many of Image’s designers are scattered around Britain, displaying York’s network of connections, bringing in stained glass bowls, colourful jewellery, and comical bird feeders with grotesque facial expressions. Do have an open mind before entering the Porta Dextra Gallery, as it is a very unusual shop, yet has gifts suitable for all. It is certainly not high art, but the ceramics and metalwork are alternative presents that you will not find anywhere in the consistently plastic tourist shops.
Last but not least, the Pyramid Gallery in Stonegate was difficult to find, but definitely worth a quick visit because of its calm atmosphere and well presented display of silver jewellery, ceramics and contemporary embroidery. Its minimalism is inviting and despite its modest size it has a spacious and relaxed ambience.
If you are worried about the expenses of indulging in fresh new art, the Arts Council England, operating through ‘Own Art,’ offers interest free loans ranging from £100 to £2,000, ideal for the student looking to invest in various modern arts and crafts. The art market in Yorkshire shows several opportunities for everyone to own inventive high quality art in their homes, such as Open Air Exhibitions.
If by chance, summer returns, and you prefer to spend the day outside, take advantage of the sunshine and appreciate art through the one particular Open Air Art Exhibition on the 1st and 2nd of July on Parliament Street in the city centre. Local artists have the leisure to exhibit and sell their paintings, drawings and ceramics. 10% of the sales will be donated to the Lord Mayor’s Charity – a perfect way to make art more accessible.
Browsing the art galleries and craft shops will certainly tire out the credit cards, so when a cheap refreshment is essential, El Piano, on Grape Lane is a great way to finish the day with its vibrant avid gallery space and cosy intimate décor. As a restaurant, café and bazaar, it is packed with books, ceramics, textiles, recycled fibre rugs and hand-made bags, just in case you still have a desire to spend your overdraft. As well as a mosaic table, they have a peculiar wooden table that allows you to carve your name into it when you donate a pound to Amnesty International. Unquestionably a friendly, ethical alternative to the many Starbucks littering our streets with manufactured muffins.
El piano is an uncommonly personal South American/Spanish themed place. Offering wholefood vegetarian and gluten-free specialities, it is suitable day and evening. Many of their crafts are imported from Collage International in Granada, Spain, presenting a multi-cultural experience that would complement any day out in York.
If you have a few spare days over the summer holiday, take advantage of York’s diverse cultural collections, because it is important to support our local artists. Do not be discouraged by the sheer quantity of ‘galleries,’ all you need is to be selective and careful, and remember, just because it says ‘gallery’, doesn’t mean that it’s going to sell exemplary art.