Thursday, 30 September 2010

Round and round the gallery...

We interrupt your usual library programming to bring you art.
Figure of a walking hippopotamus
© Copyright Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Last week I visited the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (SCVA) which is part of the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Quite aside from being interesting professionally and as a potential inclusion in my Chartership portfolio, it was a really lovely day out. I’ve been to Norwich before but never ventured out to the UEA campus, and I’m glad I didn’t leave it any longer.

The SCVA is housed in a spectacular 1970s Norman-Foster-designed building. Although not a problem-free edifice for those who work there, the large open-plan grey-and-white space is surprisingly attractive and successful despite its superficial similarities with Stansted Airport. The public can visit for free the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, the UEA Collection of Abstract and Constructivist Art, Architecture and Design, and there’s a small charge for a changing programme of special exhibitions. The SCVA also houses the UEA departments of World Art Studies (including an extensive slide and photograph library) and Museology, the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (including its own library and individual allocated study spaces for MA and PhD students).

The Sainsbury Collection comprises modern art pieces by artists such as Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, as well as art from across the globe by which many of the represented modern artists were inspired. It is displayed in a gallery space known as the 'Living Area', in the objects are arranged by broad geographical groupings, and in which textual interpretation is kept to a minimum. Visitors are invited to explore the galleries according to what catches their eye and their senses. This was described to me by a member of gallery staff as being a space in which visual communication is key.

I found this hands-off approach initially quite intimidating - I'm a gallery visitor who likes to have lots of text handy in case I 'need' it. I (think) that I like to be able to find out who/what/where/when anything is, and feel reluctant to start exploring if I can't find that out easily. However, when let loose in the gallery I found that my eye was drawn to individual pieces, and that from those I led myself to others, looking for connections between them. The acknowledged link between the modern and 'world' pieces encourages that approach - it invited the visitor to look for (potential) influences and visual relationships.

My eye -- as often in galleries -- was drawn to drawings, to simple lines, and (above all) to animal figures. I made a long list of my favourites in the hopes that I could link straight to their catalogue records, but alas that isn't possible*. But here are links to a couple that have special pages, and a few similar objects in other collections:
I had a fun and thought-provoking time exploring the gallery. These and other objects caused me to think back to other museum and gallery visits, to recall stories, poems and jokes ("erk, erk goes the hippopotamus!"), and to reflect on apparent similarities across times and cultures. But I was left feeling like maybe I should be taking something more than a perhaps childish delight in representations (realistic and not) of animals away from a visit to such an interesting and significant collection. Even with the assurances that I was to investigate the gallery in whichever way I liked, I still feel a little as if I needed explicit curatorial text to 'justify' whatever I found of interest. But I'm odd like that.

*For my future reference, at least, here are the object numbers of my favourites: 575b, 892, 377, 365, 337, 149, 150, 1029, 996, 124, 664a, 1136, 722, 1137, 68, 48, 306, 587, 57.


  1. Interesting!

    I have to admit that I (much to the distress of my wife!) spend as much time reading the information about artworks as I do looking at the art. I imagine it's a different experience to look at these things without so much context...


  2. Yes - I'm normally that sort of person too, unless there's something that *really* grabs me, in which I'll read half a line of text, look at the art, read another half a line, and neither really take in the text or take enough time to enjoy something I really like.

    I really was surprised by how much I didn't mind the hands-off text. It's made me reconsider the way I write labels for exhibitions I organise. I've been arguing with myself - maybe we need lots of text because our exhibits are books, and they're all about text, and they all have such interesting provenance etc... But I wonder if I couldn't let some of those speak for themselves, as well.