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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Tate Modern in London

What is the Tate Modern?

Tate Modern is a world-class collection of international modern and contemporary art.

tate modern

Tate Modern showcases 100 years of art, from the birth of modernism in the early 20th century to the most exciting work being made today. From Duchamp’s ever-controversial Fountain and Damien Hirst’s shocking pieces in formaldehyde, to the masterworks of the world’s most famous modern artists, including Warhol, Matisse, Lichtenstein, Picasso and Rothko, the Tate collection holds the very best in modern and contemporary art. The gallery’s innovative curatorial approach, which organises work by theme rather than by period, allows visitors to experience the ongoing dialogue between past and present, revolutionising the public’s perception of contemporary art in the 21st century.

History of Tate Modern

Opening in the year 2000, Tate Modern is the youngest of the Tate group, a network of four art museums named after 19th-century sugar magnate Henry Tate, who founded the Tate Britain in 1897. Since its opening, more than 40 million people have visited, with an extraordinary five million visitors a year. Tate Modern remains the most visited gallery in the whole of the UK and is one of the top ten most visited galleries in the world.

The collection is housed inside the former Bankside Power Station. The building was designed by architect Giles Gilbert Scott in 1947, whose most famous design is the iconic British red telephone box. Decommissioned in the early 1980s, the Power Station was chosen in April 1994 by the Tate trustees as the site on which to build their new gallery. Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron were selected for the monumental task of converting the abandoned electricity plant into a state-of-the-art gallery.

Almost the same size as Westminster Abbey, the Turbine Hall originally held the generators for the power station. It now serves as the gallery’s dramatic entrance. The vast space is used to display ambitious, specially-commissioned sculpture and site-specific installations by contemporary artists. It has hosted some of the world’s most memorable and acclaimed works of contemporary art, including Maman (Louise Bourgeois’ huge, tottering spider), Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project (a vast sun that cast a red glow over the entire Turbine Hall) and Ai Weiwei’s £100m hand-painted porcelain Sunflower Seeds.

Running parallel to the Turbine Hall is the Natalie Bell building, formally the boiler house. It is home to Tate Modern’s galleries and various viewing points allowing visitors to look down into the hall. On the opposite side of the building, and connected by an interior bridge, is the Blavatnik Building. The twisted and angular extension to the Tate opened in 2016 and has expanded gallery space by 60%. Make sure to see it all, from the tanks at the bottom of the building, where you will see live performance, interactive art and video art, to the viewing level right at the top for a spectacular view across the London skyline.

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