By Graham Chalmers
Record visitor numbers, blockbuster exhibitions, rave reviews, times are certainly good for Harrogate’s Mercer Art Gallery.
And if anyone was still in doubt it was enjoying a bit of a golden age, tangible proof is offered by the number of beautifully-designed books tumbling out of this small but ambitious museum.
Under the direction of Jane Sellars, who first became the gallery’s far-sighted curator nearly 12 years ago, there have been a total of ten - and that’s just the recent ones.
It’s all part of Sellars’ ongoing drive to raise the profile and quality of a municipal institution owned by Harrogate Borough Council.
It also follows on from the phenomenal success of Mercer Gallery’s Atkinson Grimhsaw exhibition which spawned the accompanying book Atkinson Grimshaw: Painter of Moonlight, written by Sellars herself.
Jane said: “Call me old-fashioned but I think high standards of writing and interpretation are vital to the way we present our collections. Too often the pressure in museums and galleries is to produce an ever-changing programme of exhibitions without the resources to do the research needed to produce good interpretation and publications.”
Sellars’ ability to blend wider ambition with local interests is highlighted by two new publications, both of them inspired by the Harrogate Fine Art Collection housed at Mercer Art Gallery.
But neither A Woman’s Work: Women Artists in the Harrogate Fine Art Collection by Jane Sellars nor Writing About Art: Literary Connections in the Harrogate Fine Art Collection by Lara Goodband and John Wedgwood Clarke would have happened without the help of others.
Jane said: “We had already worked on some areas of the collection, such as Victorian artists Atkinson Grimshaw and William Powell Frith but there are other parts which had barely been touched.
“We’ve been helped enormously by a £200,000 grant from the Arts Council to fund Harrogate: Access All Areas which covers all the borough council’s fine art and museum collections.”
Because the aim is also to spread public understanding of these hidden treasures, the cash support has meant experts could be drafted in for every exhibition and related publication.
In Writing About Art, for example, there is an article by Booker Prize winner A.S.Byatt about Patrick Heron’s painting Very Soft Yellows and Formal Reds while contemporary artist Sarah Pickstone is interviewed about her work’s relationship to women writers.
Sarah, the John Moores Painting Prize winner whose latest stunning collection of ballet-inspired paintings, The Rehearsal, is currently showing at Mercer Art Gallery, praised the gallery for its inclusive spirit.
She said: “It’s so nice to come and work in a museum context rather than a commercial space. I have a close working relationship with Jane and with Laura. It feels like a team when you get involved with the Mercer.
Lara Goodband, who curated The Rehearsal, said publishing Writing About Art had been an exciting challenge for herself and poet John Wedgwood Clarke.
“Jane asked John and me to explore literary connections in the collection and we spent a lot time in the gallery’s stores going through all its hidden treasures.
“We also had the pleasure of spending a day with A.S. Byatt showing her a selection of paintings which is how she came to write about Patrick Heron.”
And that’s not the end of it for this year promises to be a especially productive one at Mercer Art Gallery.
In June it will be presenting an exhibition of work by Knaresborough-based naïve painter Joseph Baker Fountain. There will be a new book, of course, written by Jane Sellars herself.
Jane said: “It’s great to have the funds to pay for the books and their wonderful designs by Harrogate designer Neville Barker.
“As far as I know, there are no other galleries or museums of the modest size of the Mercer producing books like these.”