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To survive and grow, this collection had to be slashed apart. The history of British art would stay at the old Tate on Millbank. The modern art (European, American but British too) would go elsewhere. And elsewhere would be the unused Bankside Power Station, which proved to have a yawning 133,500 sq. ft. of potential exhibition space but no cultural associations at all. The building became the site for another building. What Herzog & De Meuron did so brilliantly was to respect the merits of Gilbert Scott's disparaged and ignored design, a mere hole in urban-not-muchness, while inserting into it the attributes and functions of a great museum. Their work, and Serota's, was an achievement of Pharaonic tact, and so there is nothing else quite like it among the world's museums.
There was, of course, plenty to respect, starting with the Turbine Hall--a towering nave 115 ft. high and 500 ft. long, an indoor street running the length of the building. This vast space keys the museum but, alas, raises expectations of grandeur that the art cannot always fulfill. It's the Guggenheim problem--the museum as heroic bagel, with the hole in the middle and the art on the rim--but perhaps, some day, sculptural installations will be found worthy of the space. This hasn't happened yet. Tate Modern has started by putting in three monster steel towers by Louise Bourgeois, which, unlike the best of this redoubtable artist's generally smaller work, look inflated and vacuous. One wouldn't want them to stay there, but one wouldn't try to guess what could convincingly replace them either. What's wrong with this picture? Perhaps the rhetorical claim it makes that 20th century sculpture is, was and can be as great, as demanding and deserving of space, as that of other times--ancient Egypt, say, or Baroque Rome. Which, much as we good little modernistas might like to pretend otherwise, is flatly untrue.
The clarity and fine scale of this conversion are great for great pieces (Matisse's collage The Snail, for instance, has never looked better on a wall), but they are merciless to lesser ones, and they throw a harsh light on the deficiencies of the Tate's European and American collections, as acquired in the days before Serota. Under previous directors the Tate was always slow and rather grudging in its recognitions. It could, for example, have acquired great collections of Cubism and German Expressionism; it failed to do so, through timidity, ghastly good taste and lapses into daffiness. Serota did not make this mistake, and the quality of Tate Modern's European and American art visibly picks up after the '70s. In turn, the spaces respond. The galleries devoted to the British painter Frank Auerbach and the sculptor Tony Cragg--as brilliant and impressive a figure, in his own medium, as America's Richard Serra--must be among the most beautiful rooms anywhere in Britain today.