Of course, I'd heard rumours. People were coming back from Tate Modern, saying it's absolutely packed, you can't move, you can't get in, we just turned round and went home, it's a nightmare. Whereas people were coming back from Tate Britain - or rather they weren't, that was the thing, I never spoke to anyone coming back from Tate Britain, except for an artist who'd been installing her own work there, who said nobody ever comes in, the building stands empty for days on end, it's a graveyard. So I decided to go and look.
Exactly five months ago, the Tate Gallery's former Millbank site turned into Tate Britain, with a little bit of ceremony. Six weeks later, Tate Modern opened at Bankside with a campaign of publicity unrivalled in the history of British art. Now one shouldn't overstate the scope of such campaigns. For instance, I was impressed to find recently that my father, who lives in London and reads newspapers etc, had never heard of Tate Modern, had no idea what I was talking about.
Still, if there is some disparity in attendance between the two London branches of the gallery, the explanation isn't mysterious. One is a new gallery, in a huge and spectacularly revamped building, launched in media glory. The other isn't. As for the contents, the contest is clear. British art versus modern art? The birth of Tate Modern meant that the strange old compound Tate was cleanly separated. The provincial, historical, dull stuff was left in the old home. The international, recent, happening stuff went to the new. Even the styles of curating are in high contrast. Both galleries do non-chronological, thematic hangs. Tate Modern's is immensely chic; Tate Britain's a cheerful mess.
Last Friday, Tate Modern declared its two millionth visitor. Last Sunday, a fairish Sunday in the middle of August, seemed the sort of day when people, Londoners or tourists, might well go to the Tates, and so a good day to check them both out.
First to Tate Britain. On the way I was trying to think what a weekend visit to the Millbank building would have been like a year ago, when it was just the Tate Gallery. The clearest memory was of the obstructed entrance: you had to pick your way with care through the crowds sitting all over the front steps, and then just inside the door a host of zealous Tate staff would pounce, pressing a copy of tate magazine upon each visitor. But last Sunday access was easy. The steps were pretty clear, and there were no tate vendors in sight. As for visitors...
It didn't look good, but in a way it was a particularly bad moment. The large Mona Hatoum works that lately filled the central Duveen sculpture gallery have gone, and nothing's yet replaced them, leaving no reason for anyone to go into this space. So currently Tate Britain's main vista presents a spectacular void.
The galleries weren't that much fuller. Not empty of course, but not frequented; visitor levels at, I guess, what a year ago would be a quiet weekday. The fact that the nearest Tube station, Pimlico, is closed at the moment can't help.
The scattered visitors had a listless air, perhaps because on a Sunday outing to a major gallery one expects more company, and having the place to oneself feels like having come to the wrong place; or perhaps because the unfocused nature of the display - there are times where the pictures might as well have been hung in alphabetical order - infects the viewer too. Only in the Turner rooms, which are much as they were, did numbers and energy seem to pick up.
As for special attractions, Tate Britain isn't trying hard. There's an "in focus" display devoted to Hogarth's last and most boring painting, Sigismunda. There's a show of Norwich school landscape watercolours (Cotman et al) which you have to pay pounds 2.50 to see - but you can glimpse into it from the entrance, and it looks much like other rooms you …