Though Sainsbury was best known for his success in transforming the the family business into the most profitable supermarket chain in Britain, his influence on the arts in the United Kingdom was nearly unparalleled.
He and his wife Anya Linden, a former ballet dancer, began the Linbury Trust together in 1963. Since its founding, the Trust has granted more than $200 million in funds for the arts and social endeavors. Through this trust, Sainsbury donated $17 million to the British Museum in 2010. With further donations from his late brother Simon, the Africa Sainsbury Galleries were established. The galleries display artifacts and art of Africa and the African diaspora. The Linbury Trust has also supplied funding to the Tate, Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Musuem of London, and others.
Linden’s past on the stage also inspired donations for the performing arts. The couple established the Linbury Prize, which awards emerging stage designers with a cash prize and a commission to design a production for major performing arts companies. This enduring interest in performance also translated into a grand gift of a new theater for the Royal Ballet, where Linden used to perform, and the Royal Opera House. Sainsbury was a trustee for both institutions, along with many other arts centers.
Simon Robey, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Opera House, said in a statement, “John was truly one of the great figures in the modern history of the Royal Opera House. He was constant and generous beyond words in his love, his dedication and his support over many decades. He somehow seemed indivisible from this place and all the wonderful things that happen here.”
The largest project Sainsbury took on was the establishment of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, which he undertook with his brothers. Before the Sainsbury brothers stepped in to fund the new wing in 1985, the National Gallery had been trying to convert a car park into exhibition space for two decades. By 1991, the new wing was completed, and the Sainsbury brothers escorted the Queen for the opening ceremony. To help fund the wing’s construction, the Sainsbury brothers put up $35 million. The Robert Venturi–designed wing now houses the museum’s collection of European art made before 1500.
John and other members of the Sainsbury family ranked on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list each year between 1990 and 2015. John’s uncle, Robert, who ran the company until passing the chairmanship to John, donated hundreds of works of art in his collection to the University of East Anglia and in the 1970s funded the building of Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts to house all the works.