The Sainsbury Centre was first conceived after Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury generously gave their art collection to the
University of East Anglia in 1973.
A pioneering era of patronage
Over 40 years Robert and Lisa Sainsbury collected works of art which ranged across time and place. They sought work both from major European artists, as well as art and antiquities from different periods and cultures around the world.
Commissioning Norman Foster
The Sainsburys were equally radical in commissioning the young Norman Foster in 1974 as architect for the new building to house their works. Sir Robert saw Foster’s innovative building as the great jewel of the Sainsbury Collection.
When the Sainsbury Centre first opened its doors in 1978, the ‘Living Area’ space inside that displayed the Sainsbury Collection was also ground-breaking.
It was designed as a place of visual communication. All objects were housed at comfortable eye-level in small groups within free-standing square or rectangular cases to enable 360 viewing.
The Sainsburys did not want a museum but for people to view objects closely and to appreciate them in the way they had themselves, with minimal labelling.
Growth and extension
Soon after the building opened, Sir Colin and Lady Anderson donated their collection of Art Nouveau to the University. It was initially displayed on the East Mezzanine, then later shown in temporary exhibition spaces.
The University’s Abstract and Constructivist Collection also moved to the Sainsbury Centre and in a similar way, was shown in the temporary exhibition galleries every few years.
By the late 1980s the collections and staff had outgrown the original building. So Foster and Partners designed the Crescent Wing, which opened in 1991, to offer new office, exhibition and technical spaces.
Education and research
The Sainsbury Centre was designed from the start to house the University’s department of art history (later adding World Art Studies to its name). Research activity grew around the collections.
In 1984, the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (SRU) was founded. In 1999 the Sainsburys also helped to fund the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC).
From the early 1990s the Sainsbury Centre began to establish a regional reputation as a centre for education for a wider public beyond the University.
In the last decade the centre has undergone two further extensions. The first, which opened in May 2006, linked the 1978 and 1991 buildings internally and added a bigger shop, an education studio and Link gallery spaces.
The most recent refurbishment in 2013-14, has made better use of building’s space again. The new lower galleries give the Sainsbury Centre the largest climate-controlled exhibition spaces in Eastern England.
Lady Lisa Sainsbury’s death in February 2014 marks the end of a pioneering era of artistic patronage. However, in the context of a world class University and with the Sainsbury family’s continued support, we can ensure that the Sainsbury Centre thrives long into the future.