By Ian Sansom.
THERE ARE IN America many universities that come with museums, galleries and art centres attached: the Broad Art Center at UCLA, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The list goes on, and on. And on. Established, endowed and otherwise generously supported by philanthropists, businessmen and other fabulously wealthy types, such collections are of course a testament to the American Dream. They are where the wolf dwells with the lamb, the leopard lies down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together. They are where business meets culture, and creative accounting. The truly incredible multibillionaire Eli Broad, for example – whose true life story out-Algers even the most outrageously fantastical Horatio Alger story, and whose recent self-help-cum-motivational-business-book-cum-autobiography is appropriately titled The Art of Being Unreasonable (2012) – was the only child of Lithuanian Jewish immigrant parents but has gone on to donate millions of dollars to numerous US universities. Imagine Croesus. In a business suit. From the Bronx.
In England, the number of philanthropists and collectors who have founded museums and galleries at institutions of higher learning are rather fewer, and rather less flamboyant. Elias Ashmole of course donated his collection of antiquities – including his famous dodo – to the University of Oxford in 1677. Richard Fitzwilliam left his art collection to the University of Cambridge in 1816. Samuel Courtauld endowed the University of London in 1932. And in 1973 Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury donated their collection of indigenous art and modern masters to the University of East Anglia.
Even the most Norfolk-keen and loving – among whom I count myself – might admit that a modern university campus in Norwich is not perhaps an obvious place to establish a world-class museum. Indeed, in his book, The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum (2011), Witold Rybczynski reveals that Sir Robert had preliminary discussions with Cambridge University about the possibility of donating his collection there, but the powers-that-be proposed dividing up the works between the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and so he decided instead to go to one of the new universities. It could have been the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at Sussex, at York, at Lancaster, Essex, Kent or Warwick. But Norwich got lucky – Sir Robert was already a friend of the UEA vice-chancellor, Frank Thistlewaite. (Vice-chancellors take note: just like your mother told you, it’s not what you know…)
The Sainsbury Centre opened in 1978, with a new wing completed in 1991, but on the day I visited it looked absolutely box-fresh, as though it might have been dropped from heaven – or at least from a very large cargo plane – earlier that morning. This is partly because it sits next to – and is indeed firmly attached to – the now rather drab and depressing Denys Lasdun concrete campus buildings, and partly because it does indeed look like a large fresh box, of the kind that might have fallen of the back of an articulated lorry or been washed off the side of a super-tanker.
I ENTERED FROM the Lasdun buildings via a footbridge, which brings you into the Centre above the gallery space and which grants a full, instant, uninterrupted view of the whole place, which – yes – does look like a giant shed and which – yes – does remind one of Stansted Airport, another famous Norman Foster creation. The wonderful thing about airport-size sheds though is that they’re eminently useable spaces, and the Sainsbury Centre immediately feels like the sort of place where anything might happen. You wouldn’t be surprised if the walls suddenly rolled up, warehouse-style, to allow for the entry of a fleet of light aircraft, a battalion of light infantry, or a high-vis-jacketed phalanx of shift workers in light industry.
In contrast, descending the narrow spiral staircase, one suddenly feels rather as though one were entering a private home – a kind of knocked-through moderne mews house on a massive scale – which is perhaps the intended effect. ‘I always say that I am an old-fashioned aesthete’, remarked Sir Robert in an interview, ‘and ours is not an ethnographical collection, or an archaelogical one, not a Collection at all.’ He preferred to describe himself as ‘a passionate acquirer of what one likes for better or for worse.’
For better are the exhibits themselves – free-standing, glass-cabineted, low-lit, and gloriously odd and appealing. There are of course your Picassos, and your Bacons, and a Degas, but I was particularly drawn to the vast collection of what one might call thumb-sized primitive tchotchkes. My own favourite was a Les-Dawson-look-alike Mexican terracotta figure, who could have fitted comfortably into the palm of my hand. I also greatly admired a pair of very fine Alaskan snow goggles, c.AD 400-600, made from walrus ivory, and which looked rather like Madonna-style breast ornaments, and a nice hunting hat decorated with whiskers and glass beads. It’s all utterly unexpected, and very covetable: the definition of a personal collection.
For worse is the depressing grey carpet, and the heat. I was soon sweating so much that I had to remove two outer layers, and if I’d stayed much longer I’d have had to strip down to my underwear. Also, the footbridge that connects the Sainsbury Centre to the campus buildings is – astonishingly – not quite wide enough to accommodate two people walking side-by-side, unless perhaps, as is entirely possible, my companion and I had consumed more of the delicious cakes in the excellent café than perhaps we should. I can think of no higher praise for a museum than to say that I wished I lived there. You can’t say that of the V&A.
Ian Sansom is the author of several books, including The Bad Book Affair (UK) (US) and other titles in the Mobile Library Mystery series and Paper: An Elegy (UK) (US), which was launched in October 2012 at The Paper Museum. His latest series is ‘County Guides’, published by Fourth Estate. The first volume in the series is The Norfolk Mystery (UK) (US). He teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Warwick, writes frequently for The Guardian and the London Review of Books, and is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review.
Images: Sainsbury Centre, Wiki (footbridge).