Art Gallery entrance fee ‘agreed by former council leader behind closed doors’

Green Party councillor Dave Taylor reports back to the York Gallery And Museum Community meeting
18 Aug 2015 @ 10.09 pm
| News

A deal to charge residents an entrance fee to York Art Gallery was made in a ‘cosy meeting’ between the former leader of the city council and senior members of the Museums Trust, a councillor told residents.

James Alexander did not even inform members of his own executive group on the council about the arrangement, made about a year ago, shocked residents heard.

However, the former leader of the council, who stood down last year, has flatly denied the claim, saying

I have never made a decision formally or informally about charging for Museum entry, nor have I had any discussion about charging with the Museums Trust, council officers or other politicians.

You can read his full response in the comments below the article.

He was supported by York Museums Trust chief executive Janet Barnes, who told YorkMix:

At no point did James Alexander agree to charging.

The events that led up to the introduction of the hugely controversial £7.50 admission fee to the gallery were discussed at a meeting between councillors and York Museums Trust on Tuesday night (Aug 18).

Cllr Dave Taylor
Cllr Dave Taylor
One of those attending, Green Party councillor Dave Taylor, reported back on this frank exchange of views at the first gathering of the new York Gallery And Museum Community, made up of residents concerned about the entrance fee.

He told them charging had been agreed behind closed doors – and that the museums trust were “not going to budge from their position”.

Cllr Taylor attended the crunch meeting with other members of the cross-party learning & culture policy and scrutiny committee, plus council leader Chris Steward, executive member Nigel Ayre, and Charlie Croft, the senior officer who liaises with the trust on behalf of the council.

York Museums Trust representatives were chief executive Janet Barnes, chief operating officer Michael Woodward and chairman Prof Sir John Lawton.

Deal done a long time ago

Cllr Taylor told residents:

It became pretty clear in the meeting that a deal was done some time ago, between the senior members of the trust and what appears to be the leader of the council [James Alexander, who stood down in November 2014], in a meeting that involved the leader of the council, the executive member at the time [Sonja Crisp] and the chief executive of the council [Kersten England].

This is long before the election, this is a year ago. This is the Labour administration.

But it didn’t involve all the Labour administration. This is a point that came out of the meeting very clearly – nobody else seemed to be aware of this deal.

It seems to have been a private meeting. And then the leader of the council at the time, and the two other people I’ve mentioned, did not really transmit that information to other members of their party or opposition councillors.

Or frankly anybody else.

That deal appears to have been, with a nod and a wink, ‘you’ll be able to charge admission in the future to everybody – to all and sundry’.

Trust kept quiet

Even members of the Labour executive were not informed, Janet Looker confirmed at the meeting. She was in the executive at the time.

In exchange for the promise they could charge everybody to get into the gallery, Cllr Taylor said, “it seems the Museums Trust has kept quiet about it.”

They were accused in this meeting of not fighting their case, of not coming forward, of not telling the press or the public or opposition councillors that these savage cuts that they faced will result in charges – that was the only way forward, as they saw it.

And they said, ‘that’s not our problem – that’s your problem. You the council have screwed up here in not conveying this information throughout the council.’

What appears to have been a cosy deal between the ex-leader of the council and two other senior people with the trust went no further.

Earlier, one resident had told the York Gallery And Museum Community that he had spoken to a senior member of the YMT about its business plan and projections for future visitor numbers.

He said that officer had told him, “I don’t know, I’ve just made some up.”

The lease

City of York Council still owns the art gallery and the museum buildings and their collections. They are run by York Museums Trust on the city’s behalf.

A clause in the art gallery lease says that the trust cannot charge residents for entrance to the gallery. An attempt to overturn that clause failed at a council meeting on July 29.

Yet the trust are continuing to charge residents for entering the gallery.

Cllr Taylor said:

The trust laid it on the line very heavily that they were not going to budge from their position.

And if they’ve broken the terms of the lease – which we would say that they have done by charging residents of York entrance to the art gallery – then the council previously broke another legal agreement, which was the funding agreement.

Which I had not been led to believe was a funding agreement, but it seems to be the case that it was.

So if one party takes the other to court we’ll all end up spending a lot of money on lawyers and nobody would be the winner. So that’s not going to happen.

Trust won’t divulge business plan

Councillors pressed the trust “about what were their projections, can we see their business plan, about the finances, about what research they’ve done with other institutions who are in a similar situation,” Cllr Taylor said.

They assured us that they’d done all this research – they’d done tons of research – but it wasn’t their business to share it with us.

That was for the benefit of the trustees.

I found that rather unhelpful, that even at this stage they were not prepared to share that information.

Sold 1,000 YMT cards

The museums trust have launched a YMT Card allowing entrance to all their venues for an annual fee.

“They say they cannot manage without the additional funding that would come from York residents,” Cllr Taylor said.

“They said that they’ve made £17,000 in the few weeks that they’ve started charging by selling the York Museums Trust card to about a thousand residents.”

York Museums Trust has said previously that it had to start charging after City of York Council cut its funding by 60 per cent.

A council meeting on September 24 will decide on what happens with the entrance fee.

Residents attending the inaugural meeting of the new York Gallery And Museum Community at the Priory Street Centre had shared their anger with the trust’s decision and it lack of consultation, as well as ideas of how to proceed.

Some are considering reporting the trust to the Charity Commission.

We will publish a full report on the wider meeting soon.


Correction: In the original report we stated that one of those attending the meeting between York Museums Trust and councillors was the financial controller Alan Wadsworth. It was in fact chief operating officer Michael Woodward. Our apologies for the error, which was corrected at 7.55am on August 19.