York loses one of its last fine art galleries: expense and council push it out of town

Michael Hourston, before he closed the Blake Street premises this month
19 Dec 2013 @ 10.19 am
| Shopping
Michael Hourston, before he closed the Blake Street premises this month
Michael Hourston, before he closed the Blake Street premises this month

One of York’s few remaining fine art galleries has packed up and left the city centre. The Blake Gallery is moving away from its home of 12 years and will reopen in Haxby in the New Year.

Owner Michael Hourston said a number of factors had influenced his decision not to renew the lease on the Blake Street premises which ends this month.

These included high rent and rates, new council regulations which have affected trade and problems with anti-social behaviour on Blake Street.

“We decided that it was too much to stay in York, working for others, paying off high rentals, paying off high business rates as a result of high rentals, finding that sales were being affected by the actions of others,” Michael said.

“We could have three or four years of reasonably good growth, profitable sales, things working well – but the council are making life more awkward for me.

“I can understand the council’s desire to make York a more pleasant shopping environment and a more pleasant environment for visitors to come and look round, but unfortunately each step that they take seems to have an adverse effect on my business, so I’ve got to look at the long term effect.”

Traffic restrictions

Double yellow lines were painted on Blake Street last year. Michael said this led to a big reduction in the number of people who attended his evening previews of new exhibitions, as older or infirm clients couldn’t face the longer walk to the gallery.

The extension to the hours in which traffic is restricted on the street, from 11am-4pm to 10.30am-5pm, had an impact.

Previously customers would park outside the gallery at 4pm to pick up large or heavy purchases of artwork. But they are reluctant to do so after 5pm as they don’t want to be caught in rush hour traffic.

And the closure of Lendal Bridge to cars for much of the day is having an impact, with clients, artists and locals complaining to him about the inconvenience.

Another factor is the gallery’s Blake Street neighbour, McDonald’s. He feels problems associated with the fast-food restaurant have increased since it was granted an all-night licence.

“The council and the police don’t seem to be overly interested in any of the activities outside McDonald’s – some clients are clearly intimidated in coming down Blake Street because of the crowds of people,” Michael said.

“Since they got their all-night licence, there seems to be more litter, a little more vandalism – smearing ketchup and gherkins on the windows from the burgers, damaging signage – that’s become more irritating and putting people off.”

From greetings cards to sculpture in Blake Gallery
From greetings cards to sculpture in Blake Gallery
The gallery has a reputation for promoting leading artists
The gallery has a reputation for promoting leading artists

Blake Gallery’s last trading day in its present location was on Saturday, December 16.

Then it will reopen in the New Year at 45 The Village, Haxby, in “ideal” premises, with parking.

Michael said he is impressed with Haxby. “The population has been growing year on year. Two or three new cafés have opened up, one just across the road from where we’re moving too.

“There are investment advisers there, banks are there, the artisan bakery is getting a very good reputation.”

How have artists and clients reacted to the move? “The vast majority of them have been delighted. They’ll find it far easier to get there, far easier to park.”

‘Going down the café route’

A few are disappointed that the city centre is losing Blake Gallery, Michael said. “We’re not a tourist attraction. We’re a commercial gallery.

“Although a number of people have said, ‘it’s such a shame for York, all the good galleries seem to leave’, yes it is a shame. But there is a very good city art gallery if you just want to have a look at the art.”

He is more concerned that York will “go down the café route, which is what it seems to be doing. Most of the empty buildings within a very short period of time seem to pick up a licence to be converted into a café or sandwich bar.”

Over its 12-year lifetime Blake Gallery has built up a reputation for championing artists of real quality, including sculptor Sally Arnup, and painters Piers Browne and Ian Layton.

The business grew until the economic downturn hit the art trade a few years ago, but “the last couple of years things have started to improve”.

And although it will no longer be a city centre presence, Michael says “we’re still delighted that we’re actually staying within York. We’re on the very outskirts, being in Haxby, but we’re still in York and we still feel part of York.”

Council response

Alistair Briggs, City of York Council’s traffic network manager, said: “We wish Mr Hourston every success in Haxby and hope his business continues to improve there as he says it has in York over the past two years.

“The night-time parking restrictions were implemented in mid 2012 to reduce the volume of traffic driving into and through the central area. One of the benefits was to ensure that blue badge holders would be more likely to be able to find space to park for up to three hours to attend evening events.

“Footstreet hours and the times of Lendal Bridge’s trial closure are very similar and aim to help give pedestrians a more pleasant experience in the city centre.

“Additionally, the council has met McDonald’s and residents to discuss concerns regarding anti-social behaviour in the area.”