The Sainsbury Centre is one of around a hundred university museums in the UK which are regularly open to the public. Sir Robert (1906 – 2000) and Lady Sainsbury (1912 - 2014) donated their collection of world art to the University of East Anglia in 1973 and the Sainsbury Centre first opened its doors to visitors in 1978. It was the Sainsburys’ hope that students, academic staff and the general public would grow to appreciate the works on display in much the same way as they themselves had done, by being able to look frequently and closely at them without the distraction of too much museum-style text and labelling.
As a young man, Robert Sainsbury collected private press books and only later began to acquire the objects around which he and his wife built the collection which the University now owns. His first significant purchase was Jacob Epstein’s Baby Asleep, bought in 1931 or 1932. Over the next sixty years, he and Lady Sainsbury added works by both established and, perhaps more interestingly, emerging European artists. With the advice and encouragement of a handful of dealers, the collection also grew to include objects from cultures around the world spanning more than five thousand years. The Sainsburys particularly enjoyed the friendships which they built with individual artists, among them Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon and John Davies, all of whom are well represented in the Collection.
Almost all the works in the Collection are on permanent display. As well as being visited by the public, they are used extensively for teaching by various UEA departments and many local schools and colleges.
By the late 1980s the Collection and the staff had outgrown the original building and the Crescent Wing was added, with new office, exhibition and technical spaces. In 2002, to mark his mother’s ninetieth birthday, Lord David Sainsbury gave her, and thus the University – the splendid promise of a new gallery linking the two parts of the Centre, together with new education and studio spaces. These opened to the public in May 2006, making the Collection even more accessible and, in the true spirit of the original gift, available for all to enjoy.