Every major city on earth has its signature art gallery. Washington has its National Gallery of Art, Paris its Louvre, New York its Metropolitan, LA its Getty, Chicago it's Art Institute. It's the mark of great pre-eminence in art that one world-class city has not one but three great art museums; any one of which would do a major city proud. The city of London has its National Gallery, its British Museum, and its Tate. All three are impressive; but of these, the Tate is the youngest and fastest growing.
The Tate was born in 1897 from the bequest of Sir Henry Tate as a repository for modern British and international art. Modern art at the time was deemed to be anything created after 1790. Sir Henry's own sizeable collection formed the core of its offerings, augmented by the National Gallery's more recent acquisitions at the time. In fact, until 1917, it was an arm of the National Gallery. Like nearly every other art galley in London, it is housed in an impressive, Classical Revival edifice, in this case, one built upon the site of the old Millbank Prison. Added onto and remodelled at various intervals during the last hundred years, it is the number one repository for work by J. M. W. Turner as well as housing impressive collections by Picasso, Matisse, Rothko, Warhol, Dali, and Bacon. In fact, the Tate has more British art than does London's National Gallery, or any other art museum in the world for that matter. Its roster includes Blake, Constable, Gainsborough, Hockney, Hogarth, Rossetti, Sickert, Spencer, Stubbs...the list goes on and on. More than this though, the Tate is unique for its similarity to yet another venerated British institution which its hallowed walls somewhat resemble--The Bank of England.
Aside from their architecture, by that I mean it has branches. No, they don't have drive-thrus; but they have popped up in places like Liverpool, St. Ives, and most recently, across the Thames in an old converted power station, the Tate Modern as it's now called. The old Bankside Power Station might be considered a strange place to lodge an art museum, but it's massive, two-story turbine hall, running the full length of the building, makes for quite an impressive entrance. The addition of a two-story glass crown to the top of the building illuminates five floors of gallery space. Itís an impressive skylight, not to mention an enclosed, rooftop restaurant with a spectacular, unobstructed view of London (which has proved to be as popular as the museum itself). The new gallery spaces house the work of contemporary British artists like Rebecca Horn, Steve McQueen, and Gillian Wearing.
This isn't the first time the Tate has recycled old buildings into new art galleries. In the North, the Liverpool branch is housed in what was once a warehouse amongst the former dereliction of the Albert Docks. The Tate--St. Ives, on the western tip of the island, is situated in what was formerly a seaside mansion resembling nothing so much as an ultramodern Malibu beach house. Its main drawing card is the artwork of Dame Barbara Hepworth. In all fairness, when compared to major American cities, London benefits from the fact that it is the British equivalent of both Washington and New York (perhaps even Boston and Philadelphia too) all rolled into one--the nation's capital and its centre of wealth, population, and commerce. Of course, an art tradition more than twice as long as this country's doesn't hurt any either.