York’s thriving local arts scene

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.


  1. It is a great pity and, unfortunately an all-too-common trait of many people in the North, that Kirran and Amy didn’t do their research first and visit York’s only progressive, professional commercial modern/contemporary art gallery – ‘Minster Fine Art’, in a beautiful private Georgian house alongside York Minster.

    Minster Fine Art, owned by art dealers Dee Bray-Calvert and David Durham, has gained a strong national reputation, and following, for representing in the North, the best of established and emerging British and International contemporary and modern artists, since 2000.

    As arts professionals, the couple’s original remit was to bring to York and the North changing well-curated monthly exhibitions of original investment quality works by artists not seen before in the North – especially St. Ives and London names. As well as supporting local and regional names.

    The gallery has remained true to this remit and does not sell so-called giclee ‘limited edition prints’ (BIG RIPOFFFF) trinkets, gifts, cards or any tourist junk.

    The gallery was one of the first in York to be awarded ArtLOan (OwnArt), and has worked in collaboration with York Art Gallery, York Theatre Royal, NAtional Trust and other public and corporate institutions in the city.

    Recent sell-out solo shows have included:

    Sandra Blow RA and David Hockney RA (original paintings, etchings, drawings and screenprints;

    Tim Morrison ARCA (paintings)

    John Piper (drawings and artist prints);

    Kane Cunningham (paintings and etchings)

    Perhaps if Kirran and Amy had not done the ‘retail thing’ of looking for art on the high-street, and had instead explored a little more, then their experience of the ‘art scene’ in York (at this gallery at least) would not have been so disappointing.

    Unfortunately, Kirran and Amy will not be able to visit the gallery now as it is closed for the winter. The owners will continue to trade online however and will be holding selling exhibitions in prestige venues in and around York in 2007.

    BREAKING NEWS: The couple are to expand their business into the South of England, by showcasing their portfolio of artists in the acclaimed art mecca for buyers and collectors – St. Ives, Cornwall.

    Porthminster Gallery – a well-established venue for works by major St. Ives artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Terry Frost – looks-out over Porthminster Beach and the picturesque fishing village which is famous for its Tate Gallery and the influential colony of modern artists.

    “This exciting venture has been in the planning for over three years,” said Dee Bray-Calvert, “and we look forward to taking our most prestigious artists to a new discerning audience.”

    David Durham added, “We have worked hard to bring St. Ives and
    south-west artists to a Northern audience during the past six years.
    Now, we will be able to represent our strong portfolio of Northern
    artists to St. Ives and the South.

    “Whilst our house gallery venue alongside York Minster has now closed, Minster Fine Art”, he went on, “will continue to show important contemporary living artists, through an exciting programme of selling shows at various prestige venues in York and the North.”
    He added, “Our commitment to bring investment quality original art to our customers and collectors in the North will remain as strong as ever – watch this space!”


    David Durham

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  2. As a footnote to my previous reply I would like to add that a number of the academic staff at York University are amongst our clients, includin the Vice Chancellor.

    Also, a couple of welded steel sculptures have recently been sited in the grounds of the campus by Tom Taylor – one of our permanent gallery artists.


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  3. 12 Jun ’07 at 9:54 pm

    Frank Sleightholme


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  4. 8 Oct ’07 at 5:24 pm

    Sheila Sloan

    Regarding the Coppergate Gallery – I don’t know when you visited if you found it to be full of posters etc. We have purchased some lovely watercolours and acrylic paintings from the gallery and would recommend it to anyone visiting York.

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  5. 15 Jan ’08 at 8:17 am


    As as regular customer of the Coppergate Gallery I am totally outraged at the stupid inacuraccy of the piece written by kirran and Amy.You have obviously been in the wrong gallery.I have purchased two signed William Russell Flints in the past and purchased many watercolours by my favourite artist Digby Page.Over christmas they had the most wonderful Lowry exhibition with five signed limited editions.A little out of my price range…but i was very tempted.There is no gallery in yorkshire that mounts and frames better than the Coppergate Gallery does.As for the world cup prints and flags comment……well that truly does prove that you have never set foot in the place you stupid idiots.If I was the owner of the Coppergate Gallery I would demand an apology or I would sue.I have never ever left a comment before on a website but this has made me so angry i had to leave a reply.

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  6. 19 Apr ’09 at 8:42 pm

    richard mortimer

    I have just visited the coppergate gallary and purchased a digby page origional. lovely shop.

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  7. I have bought a total of 3 originals by Digby Page in the Coppergate Gallery. It is nothing like the idiots who wrote this article described……………..I am wondering if they have it confused with the over-priced gallery next door, which sells no originals (only prints).

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  8. 30 Apr ’11 at 10:02 am

    Sally Crompton

    I bought an original Digby Page Tuscan scene at The Coppergate Gallery this week which we love. We’ve been looking for something special for a long time and were delighted to find it here, despite having to transport it back to Wales. The seller was charming and packed it well for us to do so safely. It’s a lovely gallery. Don’t be put off by any negatives you read here.

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  9. MacMurry’s version of the “Echo” is simply outstanding, a wonderful blend of the medieval heart of York with its contemporary vision for the future. I implore you all to visit, one simply not to be missed

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