National Gallery Sainsbury Wing extension (ctd.)

November 20 2022

Image of National Gallery Sainsbury Wing extension (ctd.)

Picture: BG

There have been some developments with regard to the National Gallery's plans to renovate the Sainsbury Wing entrance (as part of plans to make it the Gallery's main entrance). After some criticism (such as from a group of eight former Presidents of RIBA) the plans for the lobby were altered, here. The current President of RIBA has hit back at his predecessors, and supports the plans, here. The original donors have backed the changes too. 

Discussions over the architectural merits of the changes seem to me to be missing the fundamental point - that the National Gallery doesn't need to spend £35m for a new entrance. Part of the justification for the project has been congestion at the Gallery's entrances, given the number of visitors. The National Gallery has been saying to critics of the project that visitor numbers are nearly back at their pre-Covid level. But this is not the case. 

The above graph shows monthly National Gallery visitor numbers from pre Covid to this September. They come from DCMS, but the graph is mine. As you can see, visitor numbers are about 50% what they were. the temptation is to blame this on a slow recovery from the pandemic. But I think there might be a more fundamental shift in the Gallery's visitor profile as a result of Brexit. Remember, before Brexit (or rather, before the end of the Brexit transition period) overseas visitors made up more than 70% of the Gallery's visitor numbers. It's easy to see how travel restrictions (especially for school and student groups) can have a significant impact on this figure.

If this reduction in visitor numbers holds, then the main argument for the new extension is redundant. The existing entrances will be more than adequate, and for some time. Then, if the Gallery does have £35m to spend, the discussion turns to how else it might more effectively spend it. Especially at a time when so many regional galleries are facing closure for sums which, by comparison, are trivial. 

Moreover, anyone who has recently tried to visit the Gallery will be able to suggest to the management how they could improve the visitor entrance experience without spending £35m. At the moment, it's a horrible mess. You can no longer enter at the Annenberg Court entrance, this is now exit only. The original, main entrance at the centre of the Gallery facing Trafalgar Square is for some reason closed entirely, both for entry and exit. Instead, you have to enter via the Sainsbury Wing, and go through a bag check first. This involves being shouted at - as I was - by four different people, and following a rather pointless line marked out by barrier ropes. It's frankly very grim, and as far as I can see, entirely unnecessary. Then there are significant room closures when you finally get in, including of course the whole of the Sainsbury Wing, which has been closed and decanted despite planning permission not having been granted yet. I'm sorry to say I left the Gallery the other day thinking I've never known it to be in such a dissatisfactory state, in terms of visitor experience. 

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.