New Sainsbury Wing designs (ctd.)

October 3 2022

Image of New Sainsbury Wing designs (ctd.)

Picture: AHN reader

A reader alerts me to the fact that the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery is now closed. It will re-open in 2025, which means it will be closed for the National's bicentenary celebrations in 2024. I was under the impression that redesigning of the wing (a £35m project) was a central part of the 'NG200' plans.

Meanwhile, in The Burlington Magazine, the architectural historian Otto Saumarez Smith has written a letter urging the Gallery to reconsider aspects of the redesign, in particular the ground floor entrance. You can read the text of his letter here.

There's one line in Otto's letter which is interesting; 'The NG ... is already nearly back to pre-pandemic levels of visitors...' I've seen this line repeated by the Gallery itself - iin fact Otto says it came from the Gallery. It is this pressure on visitor numbers which is the central justification for rebuilding the Sainsbury Wing entrance.

However, it is not quite right, or in fact nearly right. According to the government's most recent national museum visitor survey (to June this year), the National Gallery is still about 50% down on visitors from pre-pandemic levels. There is as yet no detailed analysis of what makes up this change, but we knew before the pandemic that about 70% of the National Gallery's visitors were from overseas. This demographic has changed dramatically post-Covid and post-Brexit. So it must be right to wonder if the central assumption on which the NG is rebuilding its entrance - that it will soon be overwhelmed with visitors - is in fact correct. You can download the visitor data here.

Meanwhile, the architecture critic Hugh Pearman has written a new piece for The Art Newspaper, echoing some of Otto's concerns. In particular, he disagrees with the plans to make the Sainsbury Wing entrance the main entrance for the whole Gallery:

In my view this unbalances the whole composition of the National Gallery. William Wilkins’s 1838 building is very far from great—it wrecked his reputation when built—but at least it put its presently closed-off entrance in a central portico. In the early 2000s East Wing building programme, the Getty entrance was added at pavement level to the right of the portico, leading to the Annenberg Court within. Another entrance was mooted to the left, but this was never done. I would urge the gallery to scrap the Selldorf plans and return to the drawing board—this time with a much improved central entrance as the brief. Then let the Sainsbury Wing return to being the subsidiary entrance/exit it was designed to be. But if the gallery continues to insist that its main entrance should be at the far western end of the main complex, then only the most minimal and respectful alterations to Venturi and Scott Brown’s unique building should be allowed.

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