Leiston Abbey

The Sainsbury Centre

Arts & Culture

Norwich is home to this fabulous world-class art gallery and almost priceless collections. When did you last visit? 

asks Melanie Cook of  www.VisitNorwich.co.uk

I have a long list of places in Norwich and Norfolk that I love to get to regularly, and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is right up there. With free admission to the permanent collection and Sculpture Park, it’s the perfect place to spend half an hour or even a full day wandering around in peace. Stopping for a coffee or lunch. Browsing their shop bursting with contemporary souvenirs, books and artwork.

The very nature of my role at VisitNorwich means I talk animatedly about Norwich – all the time! You can’t shut me up; there’s so much to cover. Norwich has an extensive and high-quality arts and culture scene – which ranges from many free things to do, to well-priced tickets. Plus, exciting places to eat- again for all pockets – brilliant attractions, over 1500 historic buildings, great shopping and exciting activities which are both permanent and pop-up. So, there’s always something new to do.  

Often I don’t know where to start when I’m explaining the Sainsbury Centre. For people outside the area, it’s hard to get across just how important the building and its collections are. The Sainsbury Centre easily compares to galleries in capital cities around the world. The centre is 800m2 making it one of the UK’s largest galleries for temporary exhibitions outside London. And when Norman Foster was commissioned to design it (it opened in 1978), it was his first public building. I imagine many of us are familiar with Foster’s impressive portfolio which totals almost 100 incredible buildings when I last counted. In that list find Hong Kong International Airport (1992–1998), Canary Wharf tube station (1999), the redevelopment of the Great Court of the British Museum (1999), London Millennium Bridge (1996-2000), Hearst Tower (2006, Manhattan) and many, many more.  How incredibly lucky we are that the Sainsbury Centre is in Norwich. And that’s without considering the incredible treasures inside.

The Sainsbury Centre was built to house the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection which was given to the UEA in 1973. It spans 5,000 years of human creativity and is mainly exhibited in the Living Area gallery. Presented by geographical location, find European modern art mixed with works from around the world. 

Marvel at sculpture, ceramics, painting, ritual and ceremonial art and daily life objects from around the globe. Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury enjoyed close personal friendships with many artists as they were up and coming including Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, and their collection includes some of the most significant early Bacon paintings in Europe. Important works by other artists includes Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Amedeo Modigilani, Lucie Rie and Jacob Epstein. The Centre is also home to what is considered one of the most exquisite privately amassed collections of art nouveau in the country, the Anderson Collection, as well as the UEA Collection of Abstract and Constructivist Art, Architecture and Design.

Within the industry the Sainsbury Centre’s collections are world-renowned. The Centre loans to exhibitions all over the world, over the years, which has included Russia, Japan, Australia, Greece, USA and France. And to some of the most famous institutions such as MoMA in New York, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the V&A, Tate and Imperial War Museum.

As if we need more reasons to visit regularly the Centre also runs an ambitious and inspiring programme of temporary exhibitions. In 2017 we were treated to The Russian Season – marking the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and Royal Faberge, which took my breath away. Other exhibitions included Masterpieces which brought tears to my eyes when I saw Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Man – that was a reaction that took me my surprise – and Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific, Art Deco by the Sea and Doris Lessing at 100.

This year is no different with five exhibitions to relish. The first is Woman Pioneers of Abstraction until 14 August, East End Gallery (free), which highlights the Sainsbury Centre’s collection of abstract art and includes 12 important works by woman artists who were at the vanguard of developments in the abstract art form between the First and Second World Wars. Rhythm and Geometry: Constructivist art in Britain since 1951 opened last year but has been extended until 17 July. This free exhibition includes work from the beginning of the 1950s to the present-day, comprising c.120 objects across sculpture, reliefs, mobiles, painting, drawing and printmaking. 

Richard Slee: Swans opens 13 March until 14 August (free) is witty, poetic and surreal-find it in the East End Gallery. Swans was first exhibited in 2021 in Problem Pieces at Ariana Museum, Geneva, Switzerland and makes its UK debut. This new work sees fourteen majestic swans glide across the tranquil surface of their museum plinths. Running at the same time is Pablo Picasso: The Legacy of Youth. With over 20 works by Picasso including paintings, drawings and prints, the exhibition shows how the young artist embraced successive styles at large in the art world of his time. Tickets cost £13 and must be pre-booked. 

Then in autumn Visions of Ancient Egypt (supported by Viking) opens 3 September until 1 January 2023. This is a major new exhibition exploring the enduring appeal of Egypt in art and design from the ancient past to the present day. The exhibition will feature over 150 works drawn from collections in the UK and internationally, and will examine how ancient Egypt has shaped our cultural imagination. The exhibition coincides with the anniversaries of two key events: the bicentenary of Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphs and the centenary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Finally, don’t miss the free-to-visit Sculpture Park which which is impressive any time of day, in any season. Latest additions to the park include Usagi Kannon by Leiko Ikemura, a majestic bronze sculpture which is a towering figure with rabbit ears and a human face. Goodwood Steps by Anthony Caro arrived in October, and is monumental; spanning over 35 metres in length and reaching over 3 metres in height. 

And if all of this isn’t enough, the Centre runs monthly free family activities. Go to their website for full details – www.sainsburycentre.ac.uk. Join Family Sundays in the Gallery on the first Sunday of each month, drop in between 11am-12.30pm for free creative sessions, suitable for all ages. And in the Sculpture Park, Outdoor Explore Family Sundays are run every third Sunday of the month; drop in between 11am-12.30pm.

For more inspiration for wonderful things to see and do in Norwich and Norfolk as well as places to stay, eat and shop go to www.visitnorwich.co.uk

Andrew Quartermain
Natalia Harvey
Natalia Harvey
Natalia Harvey