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V&A East

The V&A responds to Boris Johnson’s call to make the Olympic park a major cultural destination

The Mayor of London says, go east!

London. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is looking east to Stratford to expand, a move that is encouraged and backed by the mayor of London. Called V&A East, the ambitious plan for a new building in the park created for the London 2012 Olympic events would provide the museum with a huge temporary exhibition space, permanent collection galleries and a showcase for conservation work.

London’s mayor Boris Johnson describes the plan as “a new museum, linked to the mothership in South Kensington, staging blockbuster exhibitions”. He is also talking with “other global cultural brands, as we will need at least one more cultural institution to achieve the critical mass and very high visitor numbers the site deserves”.

The Tate declines

In addition to the V&A, Johnson also tried to tempt Tate to head east, approaching its director, Nick Serota. A gallery spokeswoman pointed out that Tate Modern’s extension is due to open in 2016 and the Plus Tate initiative with regional venues continues. “We therefore declined the opportunity, while recognising that there is a strong argument for increasing cultural ­provision in east London.”

Martin Roth, the director of the V&A, tells us that his museum “needs more space”. He cites the “David Bowie is” exhibition, which attracted 311,000 visitors by the time it closed last August. With a much larger venue, it might have accommodated nearly twice that number. Although new temporary exhibition galleries are due to open in an underground extension in South Kensington in 2017, they will not provide space for huge items. For instance, the museum is planning an innovative show on the uses of plywood, and ideally it would like to display an aeroplane made of the material.

Roth also wants more space for the V&A’s permanent collection, to increase public access. Important material, such as the ethnography and theatre collections, is not being properly shown—and such items could either be presented at the Olympic site or at South Kensington (if some material currently displayed there is moved to east London). One idea for V&A East would be a chronological gallery on the development of design, which would differentiate it from the South Kensington displays that are mainly based on material or culture.

Firm commitment or early stage?

The part of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park earmarked for cultural and higher education uses is Stratford Waterside, lying between the main stadium, Arcelor Mittal Orbit and Westfield shopping centre. It is on land between two canals that run parallel to the River Lea.

The project has been dubbed Olympicopolis, echoing Albertopolis, the complex of South Kensington cultural facilities that was championed by Prince Albert after the 1851 Great Exhibition. Along with the V&A, the other major partner will be University College London, which is planning an adjacent design school and centre for culture and heritage.

Although Johnson describes the V&A’s proposal as “a firm commitment”, Roth emphasises that it is still at “an early stage”. The key question, of course, is funding. The cost of V&A East, probably exceeding £100m, would need to be met largely from public sources, to avoid diverting funds from the museum’s main site in South Kensington.

V&A East now has support in-­principle from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who included it in his National Infrastructure Plan last December. The London Legacy Development Corporation, which was set up to encourage the regeneration of the area after the Olympics, estimates that the entire cultural and educational project should generate 10,000 jobs and add £5.2bn a year in gross value to the local economy by 2030.

A major part of the funding would need to come from the legacy corporation. Money generated from the sale of new flats along the waterfront nearby may be used. It is also likely that the project will try and secure National Lottery grants.

The next stage will be a feasibility study and masterplan (with costings), and work on this is expected to begin later this year. The idea is that V&A East would be an integral part of the main museum, not a branch (like the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, which is also in east London). If the Stratford venture goes ahead, the new building might open in around 2020.

Roth believes that the V&A must take advantage of the presence of creative industries in east London, particularly those involved with design, architecture and the web. “We need another magnet, rather than just focusing on South Kensington”, he says.

The Museums Association has ­expressed concern about the plan to expand in London, even if it is in a relatively deprived part of the city. Maurice Davies, the association’s head of policy, says there is “great concern about the serious imbalance between cultural funding and provision in London and in the rest of the country”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Mayor of London says, go east!'