Art Fund Museum of the Year – The Sainsbury Centre, UEA.

This time last year we started our trek around the Art Fund’s finalists for Museum of the Year 2013 with the William Morris house in Walthamstow, which was the eventual winner. Will we have the same experience this year? There are only 6 finalists, compared with 10 in 2013 – Why? I wonder – but we should get round them all before the final judgement and we started with the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. My first impression was that I thoroughly disliked the building – flat glass entrance with doors you could felt you could walk into (rather than through) if you weren’t careful and a huge exhibition space in the ‘early warehouse style.’ Too much stainless steel and cold whiteness for my taste. On the other hand the lighting – a mix of natural and artificial – was excellent, focusing the eye on the exhibits so that I fairly quickly forgot the bleakness of the building. The permanent collection – gathered by Robert and Lisa Sainsbury and given to UEA so that the works could be displayed together, as they were in their own home – is an eclectic mixture of twentieth century European artworks and much older ceramics, masks, wood-carvings, stone figures etc from all over the world set in interesting and exciting juxtaposition. Your eye is drawn from a slender Giacometti bronze to an ancient Chinese clay figure and on to Francis Bacon’s ‘imaginary portrait’ of Pope Innocent and this sort of positioning is repeated as you move through the gallery so that you see – or perhaps imagine – relationships that might not have occurred to you before. The Sainsburys apparently tended to become friends with the artists whose works they bought. These were often young and, therefore almost by definition, struggling and they used their wealth to help the careers of, for example, Francis Bacon  – I have never seen so many early Bacons in one place – Giacommetti and Henry Moore – several of whose sculptures are outside in the grounds. So… we enjoyed our visit.  Not least because there is an excellent cafeteria at the far end – beyond the student areas where they could be viewed working, one supposes, on their theses – with a great view of lawns, rabbits and a couple of Moores. They have also excavated below the original building to provide galleries for temporary exhibitions – one of monochromatic paintings of the sea, one of, perhaps inevitably at the moment, responses in different media to the concept of Monument – and several spaces for workshops and groups. At least two groups of school students arrived while we were in the gallery, giving the impression of a vibrant education policy, and we were also given a fascinating free tour of the permanent collection. For now the Sainsbury Gallery goes to the top of our list of finalists – but will it stay there? Certainly it has one of the best displayed collections I’ve seen and we came out not with that feeling of having been hit on the head by art but of having had the chance to spend time appreciating some great works.

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