In with the modern at new-look Sainsbury Centre

Forty-four years ago supermarket millionaires and supercollectors Robert and Lisa Sainsbury surprised the UEA's first vice-chancellor by offering their treasures to Norwich. Then there came a museum to put them in. IAN COLLINS hails the latest moves in a Modernist marvel.

While still more noted for natural and historic delights, Norfolk has quietly become a global player in the wonderful world of Modernism. And now it's time for a fanfare.

The party is about to open in Earlham Park, where the University of East Anglia – complete with Denys Lasdun's amazing lakeside ziggurats recalling Aztec Mexico City – turns 50 next year.

A less obvious milestone will be passed this spring, with the 34th birthday of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts – that monumental cultural temple raised to honour Sir Robert and Lady Lisa Sainsbury's magnificent collection of pictures and sculptures drawn from all periods and places and given to us.

Modernism is fast maturing.

And the idea for the centre itself is approaching a 44th anniversary, since the original development was to last for a tortuous and tortured decade.

The first public commission for now-stellar architect Norman Foster has been dubbed 'The Shed' by friends and foes alike, though its hangar-like proportions more properly suggest a silvery prototype for the designer's later Stansted airport.

Most Read

That air of calm always generated by great architecture – and our once-controversial centre is now widely recognised as one of the most important late modern buildings of Europe, with its own recent biography by writer Witold Rybczynski – here belies a restless inner energy.

And that creative force has turned into a whirlwind since the late 2010 arrival of director Paul Greenhalgh, fresh from running Washington DC's historic Corcoran Gallery a few steps from the White House, and with a previous posting as head of research at London's Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A).

He immediately initiated the Sainsbury Centre's third major overhaul in its three and a half decades – and the first phase of a four-year programme is now set for launching tomorrow.

Fittingly, the overall title of part one in this director-led development is The Modern. The package comprises an enlarged exhibition programme, two new galleries, a post-graduate study centre, a sculpture garden and – last but far from least – the social hub of a new restaurant and bar in the West End to be called the Modern Life Caf�.

Many mourned when the centre's university-run restaurant was shut as a cost-cutting measure in 2010.

Now franchised to leading museum caterer BaxterStorey, facing the new sculpture garden and alongside a huge box in a space for temporary exhibitions, it should be one of the best places to meet and eat in Norfolk.

For starters, the West End caf� and display space will be open 10am to 8pm daily. Opening hours for the main galleries will remain 10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday.

The major Modernisms Gallery will change on an annual rotation, and will explore themes and trends in modern art and design over the last 130 years.

The launch exhibition, The First Moderns: Art Nouveau, from Nature to Abstraction, will focus on highlights of the centre's own Anderson Collection as well as key loan works – and it is a display especially dear to Prof Greenhalgh's heart.

He curated the 2000 blockbuster Art Nouveau show at the V&A, and Norfolk's dazzling continuation of the design story is going to prove so spectacular that we will be covering more thoroughly in future weeks.

The Modern Sculpture Garden will include major and massive works of contemporary art by emerging artists from Britain and abroad – starting with Thomas Houseago, who has won acclaim since moving from Leeds to Los Angeles.

The Next Modern gallery (the big box already mentioned) will showcase contemporary practice across all media and include the work of artists and designers from all over the world.

There Is Here, Next Modern's launch show, consists of an intriguing album of domestic photographs by the Asian-American artist Avi Gupta.

His first exhibition in Britain is a very private survey comparing and subtly contrasting the interiors of Bengali homes in the Indian city of Kolkata and Washington DC.

And tomorrow will also see the opening of Japan: Kingdom of Characters – a comic and colourful exhibition looking at how the art of Manga cartoons and animated TV series has saturated Japanese culture.

In addition to these new exhibitions, Journeys in Colour, an exhibition of works by veteran East Anglian abstract artist Mary Webb, has been extended by popular demand until February 26. A riot of colour, with paintings alive with bold colours made all the more visually striking by zinging abstract shapes and patterns, the show celebrates her work from 1965 to the present day and includes some 60 paintings together with screen prints, drawings and collages. It also includes a brand new series of recent works never seen before, which have been inspired by a trip to Utah in America.

To sum up this evolving Modernist enterprise, Paul Greenhalgh says: 'The Sainsbury Centre has always been known as one of the country's great centres for scholarship in the visual arts, anthropology and archaeology, and the use of our collections and libraries by researchers from all over the world is one of our main roles.

'But we have some of the greatest works of art imaginable in our building, as well as an extraordinary environment, inside Norman Foster's masterpiece.

'We want to share all this with the public at large.

'What better way to do that than to create new vibrant galleries, with a superb restaurant facility? It brings together so many of life's real pleasures.'

? The revamped Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is offering free entry to all exhibitions. More information on 01603 593199,

? Paul Greenhalgh will talk about plans for SCVA to Norfolk Contemporary Art Society in Anteros Gallery, Fye Bridge Street, Norwich, on February 22. Entry for non-members �4.