The turbines disappeared from Giles Gilbert Scott's Bankside power station years ago. With them went all the out-dated paraphernalia of early 20th-century generation - the copper cabling and transformer boxes, the bakelite switches and porcelain insulators - leaving behind a deconsecrated cathedral of power. And yet who could seriously doubt that the building is more capable than ever of producing electricity?
Over the last two or three weeks the sparks have been flying in all directions; into the world of fashion, where Vogue was galvanized by the imminent unveiling of Tate Modern, Britain's first major new gallery for over 100 years, into producing a special issue devoted to contemporary art, and into the world of tabloid gossip, electrified by the rumour that tickets for Thursday's opening-night party had become so sought after that they were changing hands for up to pounds 1,000. The place gives off such a buzz just now that the air almost crackles, charged with excitation.
And most people agree that if you want to find the origin for this unnerving wattage of cultural power you would have to find Nicholas Serota somewhere in its impressive vastness - Chief Executive Officer of the recently rebranded Tate and principal engineer behind a comprehensive rewiring of the British art scene.
As dynamos go he is not one of those that gives conspicuous outward signs of its contained forces. There is little noise and even less motion in his operations - it's as if someone had pulled off the curatorial equivalent of cold fusion, a process that will convert energy into work with the maximum of efficiency and the minimum of heat loss. But while his opponents like to depict him as the Cardinal Richelieu of contemporary art - a glacially skilful manipulator of the levers of power and influence - friends consistently report that there is warmth and wit there too.
This is not just the Prince Charles effect, it seems, whereby the merest departure from formality is automatically dubbed a "quip". But though he can lay on the charm when it's needed (one private collector recalls receiving a letter "that I wanted to have made into a T-shirt it was so flattering"), Serota doesn't readily share this side of his character with journalists. He is reserved about his personal feelings and beliefs to the point of wariness and his surroundings give very little away either: a school friend from his days at Haberdasher's Aske's (where he was head- boy) recalled that Serota's mother once awarded her son a medal for not tidying his room.
"We all have insecurities and we all have different ways of hiding it," says the Royal Academy's Norman Rosenthal when I ask whether the faint undercurrent of tension that often accompanies Serota is the result of his shyness or his impatience. "It's high stakes and one can fall. Every single brick and every single painting that goes on the wall... behind every one is a trauma." Serota certainly has a long way to fall now - having reached the very top of his career, and in the past he has been at pains to correct what he sees as a false account of his effortless rise - reminding interviewers that it was all more difficult than it looks in retrospect.
That said, there aren't many overturned hurdles in his wake. The son of a civil engineer and a Labour party activist, Serota originally went to Cambridge to study Economics, changing to History of Art after seeing an exhibition at the Tate. He studied at the Courtauld under Anita Brookner, among others, writing a thesis on Turner's time in Switzerland but turning away from what might have seemed the likely progression into art scholarship. After a brief period with the Arts Council he took his first directorial position at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, in 1973, where he opened up the space to new work from Europe and America. He married in the same year, to Angela, a balerina, with whom had two daughters. …