Art is Touching

50 Years of the Sainsbury Art Collection at UEA

After the pandemic, museum curators claimed that they had to find a new way to tempt the public to view their wares. Albeit on smaller budgets and with the disappearance of patrons with suspect backgrounds in drugs or oil.

Boomer aura: Rainbow over the Sainsbury Centre.

There is also the added problem of their own inheritance. Was their museum funded with profits from the slave trade or colonial looting? Could prize exhibits be viewed as being acquired by theft or cultural appropriation? Should they be returned even if they have become a much-loved part of our own cultural heritage, like the Elgin Marbles?

Museums must appeal to all members of their society, and in the case of Britain, they should not just be a white, metropolitan, middle-class experience. I plead guilty to all three but things are changing even here, sometimes very naturally and at other times rather clumsily.

Our weekends as London children were always the same – a visit to the library to get new books, a walk in Holland Park or Kensington Gardens and a visit to a museum. We had the good fortune to live near the South Kensington museums but we also explored further afield.

The weekends never changed and we never grew tired of them. They were identical to the weekends my father had spent as a child growing up in the same part of town.

As a result, all of us have a pretty healthy attitude to parks, libraries and museums – all three of which I still frequent on a weekly basis. So I admit that I am probably not the right target for a re-think of museums and art.

I do not really need my museums to be sexed up or to find a reason to visit one. They are in my DNA but anything that helps people get as much enjoyment as I have from museums is fine by me.

With that in mind, I ventured east to the infamous Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the campus of the University of East Anglia (UEA) just outside the lovely city of Norwich. Shamefully, I had never visited the gallery, so I was excited to see the building that changed the way art was exhibited in Britain in the 1970s and elsewhere.

It can be argued that it was the precursor to stand-alone museums like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Louvre in Lens, or Abu Dhabi. It was one of the first important commissions for Norman Foster (no relation) and his reputation was largely secured by this giant aircraft hangar of a building that is strangely at odds with the brutalist university ziggurats designed by Sir Denys Lasdun that surround it.

The Sainsbury Centre houses the incredible private art collection of Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury of the big UK supermarket chain, which they donated 50 years ago in 1973.

It was on display in their Georgian townhouse in Smith Square, where Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway lived in the shadow of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Giorgio Morandi, Degas, Giacometti, Modigliani and Jacob Epstein are just some of the artists collected by the Sainsburys.

After retirement, the couple realised that none of their children was interested in their art collection.  So they explored various possibilities as to what to do with it. The one stipulation was that the collection should not be split up and that during their lifetimes, they would have access to it.

After much searching, the University of East Anglia offered a safe harbour and Foster was the perfect architect.

Intimacy is the keynote for a private collection museum. The idea that you have just entered a private house where there are no signs or explanatory text.

They wanted a building that felt like their home with its eclectic display and soft lighting, with chairs and tables scattered amongst the artworks. In the 1960s, they set about visiting various notable house museums like the Barnes in Philadelphia and the Philips in Washington, DC.

Tables, chairs and art. Inside the Sainsbury Centre.


But it was in the Netherlands, where Lady Sainsbury was born, that the couple found the beginnings of an answer. They visited the Kroller Muller Museum, designed by Henry Van De Velde and open to the public just before the war in 1938.  There they came across the work of designer Kho Liang Ie who became a good family friend.

Kho was known as the designer of Schipol Airport, where he refused to use any signage or markers to tell passengers where to go – which explains a lot about why it is still, to this day, such a frustrating airport. The Sainsburys had asked him to redesign their house in Smith Square once their children had left, so they thought that he was the perfect designer for their intimate museum.

Kho died before the first blueprint for the new gallery was drawn but Foster stayed true to his vision and spirit. The building is a 150-metre-long shed with glass walls at either end. It is divided into tranches with offices for the museum staff and the university art history department. These were originally meant to be open, but the lecturers said they did not wish to work in an open-space typing pool.

Upon entering, you are confronted by the huge living area where you can sit amongst the works of art and even read books on the artists displayed. At one end is the restaurant, and in the basement are the galleries that house the temporary exhibitions.

The gallery opened in 1978 and created quite a stir in the press, but now we are so used to these enormous open-plan buildings that were largely inspired by Foster’s work that we can no longer be really surprised by them. In fifty years, they have become the norm. How do you update a revolutionary museum and a static collection with a tiny official budget of only £3000 per annum for acquisitions?

On arrival at the Shed, we were presented with a silver booklet with the catchy title The Future of the Sainsbury Centre, a biscuit and a rather salty cup of coffee. Then we clustered around in the cafe to meet Professor Jago Cooper, the new director of the Sainsbury Centre.

A tall, very English boyish man in his mid-forties decked out in school uniform navy blue with a blonde Tintin-like quiff. Before getting his dream job, he was formerly curator of the Americas at the British Museum and a television presenter of archaeology programmes. Cooper’s big idea that he wanted to share with us is that “Art is alive and animate, waiting to be communicated with by anyone with a soul.”

Jago Cooper motivated his audience of jaded hacks with the skill of a master fish tickler. Although a few of us whispered behind closed hands that this is surely a little crazy most of the hacks were energised by his firmly held beliefs.

Cooper has devised three new ways of experiencing the art on show: digital, analogue and experimental. The first is an audio guide called Living Art, in which we meet his own seven favourite works of art.

The audio guide starts with Cooper imploring us to call him Jago and reiterating his belief that art becomes animate at the point of creation, which is why we can engage with it. He also believes that we need to physically react to the works of art and suggests that we hug Henry Moore’s Mother and Child that Sir Robert acquired in 1933.

Henry Moore’s Mother and Child, with Chisom Ibebunjoh from the Learning Department.


Thankfully his son David Sainsbury recalls the sculptor telling him as a child to stroke the mother’s back and encouraged people to do the same in Smith Square so that it got a new patina.

On the audio guide Jago, as we must call him, quotes Henry Moore, who said that his first artistic experience was at the age of five, rubbing oil into his mother’s back.

He believes the truth that art is not frozen, and anyone who thinks that they cannot touch art does not understand it. Cue a lot of sculpture hugging and tears from my fellow hacks. I touched it tentatively with my index finger and felt, if anything, rather guilty.

The second piece of art on the audio guide is a Maori flute symbolising Jago’s belief that “Museums are like your favourite film with the soundtrack turned off.” He then encourages us to move like a collection of dancing Tang funerary figures and defy convention.

The next two show us that art ages, as well as in the case of a slate head by Daniel Hervey and the Portrait of P.L. by Francis Bacon. Jago adds helpfully that even though both men are dead, they live on in this portrait.

Art can help you understand the ageing process and, indeed, the dying process as well. This is highlighted by the final object on the guide – Monumental Jar VII by Julian Stair.

Stair has held death cafes in the Sainsbury Centre where members of the public discuss their thoughts about death and have even been persuaded to donate their mortal remains to Stair so that he can use them in his artworks.

The ashes of one of Stair’s cafe friends have been mixed with the clay of this jar. A sort of Great British Wake Off.

The analogue tour follows Kho’s belief that signage is wrong and is an amble through the collection with no particular direction. This meant that I could wonder at a tremendous 1930 self-portrait by the British artist David Bomberg, two extraordinary portraits by Frank Auerbach, one of those perfect delicate ballerina sculptures by Degas and outside a full-scale model of Tatlin’s Tower.

All of them worth the price of admission alone, except that Jago has made it a free museum with a pay-what-you-can policy. I would, however, advise missing the three life-size sculptures from the 1970s by John Davies, including his mystifying Bucket Man.

The Sainsburys only bought these when the centre was being built as they were too big for their real home. Thankfully they are more or less hidden from view.

Emboldened by this group hugging, Jago took us to the next level – the experimental one. This is the level where, as the Scientologists would say, ‘you cross the bridge to total freedom’ and are at one with the living art.

In the first of two installations, the public is encouraged to enter a glass vitrine and close the door behind them. All around the vitrine are portraits. Photographs and sculptures by Francis Bacon and others. They are all staring at you so that you feel what it is like to be always stared at like a work of art.

It is supposed to reverse the relationship between art and the public. I must admit that for me, it was like looking at rather wonderful objects through an irritating plate glass window.

The second experimental installation is a bright red hammock in which you lie in a haphazard fashion. Hung above you is a portrait by Giacometti. Jago believes that “Art is a talk” and urges us to tell the Giacometti a secret that “you would never tell another human being”.

Relaxing with Giacometti.


In that way, you can create your own identity and communicate on another level. No prizes for guessing my secret.

The third is a 60-second film he commissioned and narrated that will be shown on all social media with the strapline, “The Sainsbury Centre where art is alive…”

The gallery staff seem to love this new approach to their workplace and are always at hand to help you experience the art in another way.

Later in the year, Jago wants to employ a full-time curator to ask the big questions of the artworks and, by default, of us.  Questions like “What is Truth? Why do we take drugs? Why do humans kill one another? How do we adapt to a changing world due to climate change?”

Because Jago believes that hugging a Henry Moore or imparting secrets to a Giacometti reveals that art answers questions about why people kill one another or take drugs or the origins of climate change.

Toto – we are no longer in Kansas or East Anglia, for that matter.

Photographs by Andy Crouch, courtesy of the Sainsbury Centre, except for Mother and Child, courtesy of the Henry Moore Foundation. All rights reserved.