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First Look: Masterpieces at the Sainsbury Centre

12 September 2013

In this ongoing series, Apollo previews a range of international exhibitions, asking curators to reveal their personal highlights and curatorial impulses. Ian Collins is the curator of ‘Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia’ at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia

Tell us a bit about the exhibition…

More than 250 pictures and objects from the dawn of human time to the present day, linked to Norfolk and Suffolk, are beacons of masterly art and design and candles on the cake for the University of East Anglia’s 50th birthday.

What makes this a distinctive show?

East Anglia is often viewed as being at the end of the line (or the back of beyond!). This vast show proves that, thanks to its coastline and all the creative and cultural exchange and absorption down the ages, it is actually at the centre of everything.

How did you come to curate this exhibition?

I have been writing about the art of East Anglia for 35 years and dreaming of a display remarkably like this one. Finally I was invited to do it.

What is likely to be the highlight of the exhibition?

There will be a wonderful thing for everyone: the classic racing car (a Lotus Type 72); a Gainsborough self-portrait; a Fabergé dormouse from Sandringham; the magnificent King John Cup from King’s Lynn and the Berger Crucifixion panel of the early 15th century, to name but five.

And what’s been the most exciting personal discovery for you?

The fact that in 1831 both Turner and Cotman painted a storm from the beach at Great Yarmouth. Putting these great works side by side is a ravishing revelation.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced in preparing this exhibition?

Public galleries are reluctant to lend their greatest works because they are masterpieces and therefore, understandably, essential to their collections. It has been a steep learning curve in the art of persuasion.

How are you using the gallery space? What challenges will the hang/installation pose?

Norman Foster has reconfigured the interior spaces for this exhibition and to celebrate the listing of what was his first public building. The challenge has been to make a huge and eclectic show look elegant and cohesive within such a sublime setting.

Which other works would you have liked to have included?

The warrior-king’s helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship burial would have been wonderful, but we clash with the reopening of the British Museum’s Saxon and Viking galleries for which this masterpiece is properly the centrepiece.

‘Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia’ is at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia from 14 September 2013–24 February 2014