Britannia Rules the Wave: A New Era of Art Ambitions in London's Tate Modern

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Here's the way Tate director Nick Serota says it happened back in the early '90s: "I got a key and went in. There was rain dripping through the skylight into this huge room onto a great mass of rusting boilers and turbines, and a great pool of water below. I said to myself, 'This is it'." It was the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art, to be fashioned from the enormous brick, oil-fed power station at Bankside, on the south side of the River Thames in London. Designed in 1947, the station shut down in 1981. A generation and $200 million later, it's the Tate Modern, filled with Picassos, Matisses and arguably the best collection of 20th-century art in Europe. (The older British works remain at the original, re-christened Tate Britain across the river.)

The Tate Modern is part of the booming British art world. Suddenly London has a museum, the galleries, the collectors and the hot artists to rival New York for the top spot. The blocks around Cork Street in the Mayfair district brim with arrogantly pristine showrooms for high-end contemporary art. Advertising mogul Charles Saatchi isn't the only notable patron anymore; he's got adventurous and acquisitive company in such moneyed couples as the Stoutzkers (who've bought a Chris Ofili to go with their Francis Bacon), the Ritblats (Mr. is chairman of British Land) and the Donnellys (he's a bookmaker who's on the Tate's international council). No wonder trendsetting New York dealer Larry Gagosian has just opened a London branch. He shouldn't want for new talent to supplement the likes of Damien Hirst in his stable; there are lots of hip, flip new British artists in the pipeline. Take Roderick Buchanan, whose "Gobstopper" video of kids trying to hold their breath recently won Britain's second biggest art trophy, the Beck's beer "futures award" of $30,000. (The top is the $45,000 Turner Prize, given annually by the Tate.)

Meanwhile, Tate Modern opens to the public May 12. The Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron has beautifully preserved the dourly imposing power plant's exterior and transformed its interior. Outside, the only major change is a translucent glass box on the roof, to allow light into the cavernous building. …