Britannia Rules The Wave

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. Visitors enter directly into the great Turbine Hall--500 feet long and 115 feet high. Alongside the hall is the museum proper: five floors of galleries, restaurants and bookshops. It's all nicely Helvetian-clean without being oppressively minimal.

As the chief of the most important museum complex in London, 54-year-old Serota might be the most influential figure in today's art world. Erect, wiry and designer-suited, he combines the scholarship and suavity of Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum in New York with the drive and dealmaking acumen of the Guggenheim's Thomas Krens. And he's savvy enough to have hired his opposite to direct the Bankside museum: Lars Nittve, 45, a large, affable Swede who ran the highly regarded Louisiana Museum in Denmark before coming to London.

Serota's international outlook jibes with the ambitions of "Blair's Britain" to be an economic and cultural force on a global scale. And, if Tate Modern attracts the 2 million visitors per year it hopes for, what might be called the Bilbao Hypothesis could be conclusively proved. The BH says that big new museums of modern and contemporary art can attract tourists as well as the old-master treasure houses. In an extension of that premise, the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art in New York last week announced plans for a for-profit Web business, to go online late this year offering designer objects and limited-edition prints.

Still, Serota worries that potential museum patrons may still lag a bit in going contemporary. "People who make money in Britain have hitherto used it to buy an old house in the country and green Wellington boots to pretend that they've been part of the aristocracy for 500 years," he says. He hopes that the Tate will help change things over the next decade. As Serota speaks, expensive apartments in a "major loft development" just around the corner from the Tate are being sold by a firm called, naturally, the Manhattan Loft Corp. It looks to us like the future is now.