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York Art Gallery expansion reveals collection's quality and building's long-hidden spaces

Outgoing head takes tough decision to introduce charging after funding cut

York Art Gallery reopens on 1 August after a two-year, £8m revamp and expansion, revealing the Victorian-era building’s magnificent vaulted roof and the quality of its collection, which ranges from Italian Old Masters to British studio ceramics.

A new upper floor bathed in natural light from the long-hidden rooflights provides a home for a new centre of ceramic art (CoCA), featuring work by leading makers including Lucie Rie and Bernard Leach. Billed as the largest collection of British studio ceramics in a public collection, the new centre includes Clare Twomey's installation of 10,000 white bowls (Manifest: 10,000 hours), which form a tower in one of the gallery's three new spaces.

Pride of place on the ground floor galleries goes to York's collection of Old Masters, many donated in the 1950s by a South African expat, F.D. Lycett Green, who admired how the gallery's then director, Hans Hess, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was revitalising the institution in the cathedral city in the north of England. Lycett Green's Italian, Dutch and Spanish paintings are complemented by a wall-installation in gold-plated wire by the artist Susie MacMurray called Halo (2015), another of the special commissions that mark the reopening.

The new-look gallery pays tribute to other significant donors, including a dean of York Minster, Eric Milner-White, who was also impressed with Hess. A new collection on loan to CoCA comes from the ceramic collector Anthony Shaw, which joins the remarkable holdings built by a Yorkshire librarian, Bill Ismay.

The revamp of York Art Gallery is the crowning achievement of the outgoing chief executive of York Museums Trust, Janet Barnes. At a private view yesterday, 28 July, she revealed how when she arrived at York 13 years ago, she decided that opening up the long-hidden space under the roof would unlock the potential of the building and the collection. A £2m bequest from a brother and sister who lived in York, Peter and Karen Madsen, was key to realising that vision. Arts Council England awarded the project £3.5m.

Its chairman, Peter Bazalgette, opened the gallery. He alluded to the tough decision the trust has made to introduce a £7.50 admission charge to the gallery after the city council reduced its funding by around 60 per cent. A year-long pass of £20 provides access to the art gallery, Yorkshire Museum and Castle Museum, which the trust manages on behalf of the council. The museums of social history and archaeology have long had admission charges.

Tribute was paid to Kathryn Findlay, the project's lead architect and co-founder of Ushida Findlay, who died last year. In the autumn a new art garden to the rear of the gallery that links to the historic, riverside Museum Gardens, is due to be unveiled.