Birnbaum, Daniel, Artforum International
WHEN THE TATE GALLERY OF Modern Art opens the doors of the transformed Bankside Power Station to the public on May 12, the international museum landscape will never be the same. Comparisons between the central London institution's debut and the opening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929 or the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1977 don't seem farfetched. The museum's press material has played up the fact that Tate Modern will represent not only a major new museum for modern and contemporary art but also the public face of twenty-first-century London. Tate director Nicholas Serota, the recently knighted art historian who has supervised the entire process--from the trustees' decision in 1992 to establish an autonomous exhibition space for the international collection to the appointment in 1998 of a director for the new space, Lars Nittve, and a team of curators--is unequivocal in his assessment of the magnitude of Tate Modern: "I think that the creation of an institution of this magnificence is b ound to raise the status of visual art and especially contemporary art in Great Britain. Today it's difficult to imagine what London would be like without the National Theatre. I think that in ten years' time, or even in three years' time, it will be difficult to remember what London was like without Tate Modern."
The effect will by no means be limited to the English art scene. With Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool, and Tate St. Ives, Tate Modern belongs to a family of galleries, each with its own director but working in tandem as a single organization headed by Serota. Representing by far the most significant investment in a new national arts institution in London in decades--the project, partially funded by proceeds from a national lottery, ran to [pounds]134 million ($213 million)--Tate Modern will no doubt do wonders for the international status of the city, which continues to battle its pre-YBA reputation as one of the sleepier contemporary-art metropolises in Western Europe. Serota points to the somewhat ambiguous position of the British, who see themselves as part of Europe while maintaining a certain distance.
Clearly Tate Modern will be perceived as a great European museum, but because of the special history that exists between Britain and the US, it can help build a bridge between continents as well: "It looks both ways, and we of course hope to combine the strengths of both cultures."
Maybe the period of spanking-new, spectacular museum buildings is drawing to a close, the Guggenheim Bilbao being a last, excessive straw. In the afterword to her 1998 study Towards a New Museum, Victoria Newhouse concludes, "If recent years have witnessed the upstaging of art by museum architecture and amenities, the future may see the disappearance of the original art objects altogether." That future may still seem far off, but it's true that the extravagant architecture of some recently constructed museums frequently steals the show. "Extensive research and a questionnaire sent out to a large number of artists all over the world asking in what kind of museums they prefer to exhibit made it clear that the most popular spaces for art are quite frequently industrial conversions," Serota says. "That gave us confidence in our choice of the Bankside Power Station." The gigantic industrial building--located on the south bank of the Thames opposite St. Paul's Cathedral--has been converted into a space for exhibit ions by Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architectural firm that has catapulted to international prominence since landing the commission.
The museum's economic impact on London should be formidable. Tate Modern will add an estimated [dollars]50-[dollars]90 million ($79-$143 million) annually to the London economy and help create 2,400 new jobs. The number of visitors is expected to exceed two million a year. Still, these predictions inevitably bring to mind the question of the museum in the age of cultural tourism. …