Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
Celebrates 30 Years

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich, first opened its doors on the 4 April 1978.

This April the Centre celebrates its 30th birthday with a call for people’s memories of the Centre, free entry to the current special exhibition Cloth & Culture NOW, a special First Sunday for families and more.

Site meeting for display case mock-up
Sir Robert and Lisa Sainsbury (seated right), George Sexton, Norman Foster (centre) 1977

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts was built to house the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection of modern European and world art which was given to the University of East Anglia by Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury in 1973.

The Sainsbury Centre was designed by the then up-and-coming Norman Foster and is recognised as his first public building.

Over 30 years the architecture and activities have evolved, however the Sainsburys’ original vision still underpins the displays and philosophy of the life of the Centre.

Celebrations in April

Birthday weekend celebrations will begin on Friday 4 April with free entry for every visitor to the Cloth & Culture NOW exhibition and this will continue for the subsequent 2 days. On Sunday 6 April the First Sunday for families, entitled Birthday Bonanza, will offer special activities and celebrations throughout the day – ideal for children 4 to 12 years (see Notes to Editors for full information).

Celebrations continue throughout April, during which time there will be free 30-years balloons and stickers for family visitors as well as a special 30-year collection of stories for children to enjoy when exploring the galleries. Anybody with a birthday during 1978 will be able to gain free entry to the special exhibition, Cloth & Culture NOW, throughout the month (please bring proof of age).

As part of the celebrations, the Sainsbury Centre is would like to people to share their memories of the Centre over the last 30 years. This could be re-collections of a visit, an exhibition or simply a fun experience shared with friends or staff. There will be a memories table in the gallery during April where people can leave a card with their memories and a special new page will be set-up on the website where people can also leave their own memories and read those of others – visit At the end of the month the memories will be ‘put in a hat’ and a name drawn – the winner will receive a £50 voucher to spend in the gallery shop. If people have photographs they would like the Centre to have copies of, they should call 01603 593199 so arrangements can be made.

Sainsbury Centre Exterior 2007
Photo: Andy Crouch

The past 30 years

“I had been wondering whether Norfolk realises just what it has got”
– Sir Norman Reid, Director of the Tate Gallery 1964 – 1979, commenting on the opening of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in 1978

The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection is primarily shown in a gallery known as the Living Area, where European Art is interspersed with works from across the globe spanning 5,000 years of human creativity. It was Sir Robert’s hope that students, academics and members of the public might enjoy the collection very much as he and Lady Sainsbury had done in their own home. The Sainsbury Centre has not deviated from Sir Robert’s vision, the most recent re-display of the collection just prior re-opening the building in May 2006, still reflects his ideals: allowing people to enjoy the aesthetic beauty of the Collection and make their own comparisons between the objects. The works are displayed in cases which allow people to view them very closely from all angles.

The Living Area display when the Centre re-opened May 2007
Photo: Nigel Young, Foster+Partners

The collection reflects the Sainsburys’ friendships with artists such as Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon. Suzanne Deakin, a volunteer guide at the Sainsbury since 1978 describes the period after the Centre first opened: “It was a very exciting time – Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury would often bring artists with them to visit such as Henry Moore, Lucy Rie, John Davies and Hans Coper. It’s amazing how they knew so many budding artists, nurtured and supported them”. The collection also includes works by Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas and Amedeo Modigliani. Many of these artists drew their inspiration from world art, a fascination for which they shared with the Sainsburys.

Born out of a dialogue between the benefactors and the architect, the Sainsbury Centre was, in 1978, extremely experimental in origins and continues today to challenge preconceptions about museums. It is, in effect, a gallery without walls.

“There is only one Sainsbury Centre, you do not go there and say, ‘I feel I’ve seen that building somewhere else before!’ It is very specific. It could only have come out of the dialogue with Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury, the character of their collection and that site at that point of time. Together with structural engineer Tony Hunt and lighting consultant George Sexton we developed a clear design philosophy, based on the Sainsbury’s views abut the relationship between art and its setting”
– Lord Foster.

The first Living Area display 1978
Photo: Ken Kirkwood

The Sainsburys’ desire was to create a building that could accommodate a broad variety of activity under one roof: teaching, temporary exhibitions, collections and dining. This unusual approach was to create an environment condusive to the cross-fertilisation of ideas and has resulted in a unique atmosphere. In 2008 the public programme links closely with teaching activity in the School of World Art and Museology (WAM) and the Sainsbury Research Unit (SRU), which are both based in the Centre.

School group enjoy handling workshop in the education studio 2006
Photo: Andy Crouch

The flexibility of the architecture has allowed for expansion of the building to meet the needs of users. In 1991 the Crescent Wing extension was added providing additional display space, office space and other back-of-house facilities. Another of phase of building, completed in May 2006, created a link between the original 1978 building and the Crescent Wing and gave the Centre additional exhibition space, a state-of-the-art education studio and a fabulous gallery shop.

Young gallery visitor, Isobel Marshall 2007
Photo: Simon Marshall

The Sainsbury Centre has kept the collections at the heart of what it does. The 5 to 6 temporary exhibitions each year all in some way connect to the works, cultures and themes represented in the collection. The extensive education and events programme also has these links.

“At the heart of it all is the importance of the objects and our desire to share our enjoyment of them. I am delighted to have been able to do this through the Centre and celebrate the marvellous way in which the life of Collection has flourished”
– Lady Sainsbury.

Young gallery visitors enjoy First Sunday Activities 2007
Photo: Andi Sapey

Over the past 30 years the activities of the Sainsbury Centre have evolved. In 2008 the Centre is internationally recognised for its’ ambitious exhibitions and lends works from its collections all over the world.

Llama Effigy Peru AD 1400 – 1532
Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection UEA 150

The Centre’s academic work is widely reputed and the breadth of its education programme attracts large numbers of school groups and other visitors. Since re-opening in May 2006 the Sainsbury Centre has had record numbers of visitors with almost 70,000 people coming through the doors in the last year.

Figure of a walking hippopotamus Egypt Dynasty XII; c.1880 BC
Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection UEA 306

“It’s hard to believe that the Sainsbury Centre is 30 years old. In that time, we’ve grown to become one of the country’s outstanding university museums and a unique centre for displaying and studying art from all over the world. Perhaps our greatest public achievement is the part we’ve played in UEA’s growing community engagement, with visits by hundreds and thousand of local people”
– Nichola Johnson, Director, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.