Where the Blockbusters Belong London Once Struggled to Compete with Paris as the European Venue for the Biggest Exhibitions. but as Monet, Ingres and Pollock Come to Town, Charlotte Mullins Finds out What's Changed

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It is springtime, and London has never looked better. Like the Emerald City of Oz, it is sparkling - with blockbuster exhibitions. Monet in the 20th Century and Portraits by Ingres have been packing them in; from next month Pollock is likely to do the same. It is not surprising that Parisian eyes are green with envy: yet again French artists no longer make it home.

London has rarely had a season like it and, as with Dorothy's mythical land of the wizard, the truth will out: through a combination of networking, bargaining, ingenuity and punching above its weight, the capital has gone from being very often an also-ran in the race to secure the world's biggest exhibitions, to seizing many of the prizes that might otherwise have gone to its great rival Paris, or other leading European art centres.

From the moment the futuristic Pompidou Centre opened in 1977, Paris became the hub of the modem museum world. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist mega-museum, the Musee d'Orsay, opened in a converted railway station in 1986; three years later, IM Pei's glass pyramids rose from the forecourt of the Louvre, and the vision of Paris as art museum and exhibition epicentre was complete. Paris had the style and new buildings, and everyone wanted to send - and see - exhibitions there. What did London have? Nothing but gallery extensions: the Toytown blockiness of the Tate's 1987 Clore Gallery, designed to house the Turner bequest; the 1991 Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery which houses its early Renaissance collection, and the RA's discreet Sackler Wing, finished in the same year. While all provided desperately needed additional space for smallish temporary exhibitions, none was really show-stopping - or show-demanding - in the same way that the new Paris museums were. British galleries had solid academic reputations, but were not thinking on a global scale. Without government funds for new buildings (in contrast with the French government's trou sans fond) London galleries had to think laterally. If you can't create new buildings, or wholly revamp the old ones, you need people at the helm who will make up for other shortcomings. Enter Nick Serota, director of the Tate Gallery since 1988; Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery since 1987; and Norman Rosenthal, exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy for 21 years. "It's all about travelling and keeping your ears and eyes open, and following instincts," says Rosenthal. "Instincts are all very well, but to convince other institutions to work with you on an exhibition, and to convince people to lend their work to you, you need to be backed up by an institution that is well respected, and that people - collectors and collaborators - want to be associated with." Serota thinks of the exhibition arena as a boxing ring: "For the big shows, you have to go out and fight for them. You either need to have the idea yourself, or you have to go and fight for your place in the queue." Big shows that originate abroad will normally tour to only one, possibly two, other venues. You have to be quick off the mark to be one of those other places. And finding out about them isn't simple. "Shows aren't posted on the Internet as being available," Serota says. "Someone in New York doesn't sit there and say, `Well, we've had five bids from European institutions - which one shall we take?' What happens is that people meet, talk at conferences and hear about what other people are doing. And they decide to collaborate." And it helps to be able to work with the boot on the other foot: "We currently have projects for 2001 that we are thinking about placing in America, so we think - where would be the best location for it? Then we write to that institution." But life in the exhibition-trading hall is more complicated than a straight exchange - there's the consideration of where the work is coming from. Serota explained: "If we are wanting to borrow large numbers of work from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, then we are likely to think about the possibility of sending the show there. …