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Will the Chancellor back V&A’s Olympian vision for a cultural quarter?

Art and design museum with space for London’s biggest exhibitions could open by 2020, subject to funding

London

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) planned gallery in east London’s Olympic park will be the institution’s most ambitious project since the completion of its main building in South Kensington in 1909. Dubbed V&A East, the building would provide space for the museum’s biggest exhibitions, a collections store as well as conservation facilities. Martin Roth, the director of the V&A, tells The Art Newspaper that if the V&A East project goes ahead, the museum would be willing to share the gallery space with other London institutions wanting to present particularly ambitious exhibitions. The project is a key part of Olympicopolis, a cultural quarter backed by London’s mayor, Boris Johnson. Roth is a member of the international jury to select a design team.

V&A East is likely to cost more than £100m, although the figure will only become clear at a later stage. It will be the largest element in the cultural quarter, which could rival the Southbank in central London. The project will require government support and The Art Newspaper understands that the V&A is hoping that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, will give the Treasury’s blessing to the scheme in his autumn statement to Parliament, due on 3 December.

V&A East is likely to measure 20,000 sq. m, of which half will be for galleries. This will include a huge space for temporary exhibitions, probably the largest of any London museum. Roth believes this is essential in order to best present shows on the scale of “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”, which is due to open in March (until July 2015) in the museum’s cramped galleries in South Kensington. (The V&A is building an exhibition space in its main building. It is being designed by the architect Amanda Levete and is due to open in 2017.)

There will also be galleries to display works from the museum’s collection in V&A East. This is described in a planning brief as a “three-dimensional encyclopaedia of art and design”. The third element is space for stored collections. The museum also plans to offer 25 studios for emerging designers. Roth says that V&A East would play an important role in helping to “regenerate London’s East End”, which has recently become a magnet for designers and the creative industries.

Olympicopolis will have other partners in the same complex of buildings: Sadler’s Wells is planning a 600-seat venue to present contemporary dance and the University of the Arts London wants to set up a new campus. Boris Johnson, who is overseeing the park development, is looking for an international museum to become a “fourth partner” in the scheme. The leading contender, which would be given a 11,000 sq. m space, is the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Its board of regents (trustees) has now begun to discuss the proposal.

The cultural quarter will be on a long, thin site bordered to the west by the River Lea. It lies just to the north of the Olympic stadium and Anish Kapoor’s 2012 ArcelorMittal Orbit.

Who will fund V&A East is a key question. The Treasury is expected to contribute towards the cultural quarter. The site will also provide at least 70,000 sq. m of residential accommodation and profits from this development would help to subsidise the cultural facilities.

In April, we reported that the Depart­ment for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) wants to sell Blythe House, a collections storehouse shared by the V&A and the British Museum. If it is sold, this could raise more than £50m for the DCMS, which would then have to compensate the museums for their loss of storage. Other sources of funding are likely to be the National Lottery, private trusts and commercial sponsors.

As well as capital costs, a large new building offering around 50% more gallery space than its South Kensington site would increase the V&A’s regular expenditure. The museum will therefore need a commitment from the culture department to support an increase of its annual grant-in-aid after the opening, since it is determined not to allow a new branch museum to divert resources from what Roth calls the “mothership” in South Kensington.

The London Legacy Development Corporation has now launched an inter­national competition to draw up an overall plan for Olympicopolis, with the winner due to be announced next March. If funding is successful, V&A East could open in 2020.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Will the Chancellor back V&A’s Olympian vision?'