Where the blockbusters belong

London once struggled to compete with Paris as the European venue for the biggest exhibitions. But as Monet, Ingres and Pollock come to town, Charlotte Mullins finds out what's changed

It is springtime, and London has never looked better. Like the Emerald City of Oz, it is sparkling - with blockbuster exhibitions. Monet in the 20th Century and Portraits by Ingres have been packing them in; from next month Pollock is likely to do the same. It is not surprising that Parisian eyes are green with envy: yet again French artists no longer make it home.

London has rarely had a season like it and, as with Dorothy's mythical land of the wizard, the truth will out: through a combination of networking, bargaining, ingenuity and punching above its weight, the capital has gone from being very often an also-ran in the race to secure the world's biggest exhibitions, to seizing many of the prizes that might otherwise have gone to its great rival Paris, or other leading European art centres.

From the moment the futuristic Pompidou Centre opened in 1977, Paris became the hub of the modem museum world. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist mega-museum, the Musee d'Orsay, opened in a converted railway station in 1986; three years later, IM Pei's glass pyramids rose from the forecourt of the Louvre, and the vision of Paris as art museum and exhibition epicentre was complete. Paris had the style and new buildings, and everyone wanted to send - and see - exhibitions there.

What did London have? Nothing but gallery extensions: the Toytown blockiness of the Tate's 1987 Clore Gallery, designed to house the Turner bequest; the 1991 Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery which houses its early Renaissance collection, and the RA's discreet Sackler Wing, finished in the same year. While all provided desperately needed additional space for smallish temporary exhibitions, none was really show-stopping - or show-demanding - in the same way that the new Paris museums were. British galleries had solid academic reputations, but were not thinking on a global scale. Without government funds for new buildings (in contrast with the French government's trou sans fond) London galleries had to think laterally. If you can't create new buildings, or wholly revamp the old ones, you need people at the helm who will make up for other shortcomings. Enter Nick Serota, director of the Tate Gallery since 1988; Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery since 1987; and Norman Rosenthal, exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy for 21 years.

"It's all about travelling and keeping your ears and eyes open, and following instincts," says Rosenthal. "Instincts are all very well, but to convince other institutions to work with you on an exhibition, and to convince people to lend their work to you, you need to be backed up by an institution that is well respected, and that people - collectors and collaborators - want to be associated with."

Serota thinks of the exhibition arena as a boxing ring: "For the big shows, you have to go out and fight for them. You either need to have the idea yourself, or you have to go and fight for your place in the queue." Big shows that originate abroad will normally tour to only one, possibly two, other venues. You have to be quick off the mark to be one of those other places. And finding out about them isn't simple. "Shows aren't posted on the Internet as being available," Serota says. "Someone in New York doesn't sit there and say, `Well, we've had five bids from European institutions - which one shall we take?' What happens is that people meet, talk at conferences and hear about what other people are doing. And they decide to collaborate." And it helps to be able to work with the boot on the other foot: "We currently have projects for 2001 that we are thinking about placing in America, so we think - where would be the best location for it? Then we write to that institution."

But life in the exhibition-trading hall is more complicated than a straight exchange - there's the consideration of where the work is coming from. Serota explained: "If we are wanting to borrow large numbers of work from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, then we are likely to think about the possibility of sending the show there."

So, in many cases, the gallery's own collection is its key bargaining chip. When, soon after he joined the Tate, Serota travelled to Philadelphia to suggest a jointly organised Cezanne retrospective, he had his reasons - he realised that he couldn't do a major Cezanne show without Philadelphia's Large Bathers; but equally necessary was the National Gallery's version, and he had already secured its loan. As he called it, he had taken with him a "calling card". It sounds more like a trump card.

The idea for the forthcoming Jackson Pollock show came up when Serota and Kirk Varnedoe, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, discovered as long ago as 1991 that they both had an interest in exhibiting him. "MoMA decided that they were going to make the Pollock show," Serota said, "and we said we wanted to be the European venue." For a time the Tate's success hung in the balance. But Serota had things going for him. He had previously paved the way for the loan of a key Pollock work, Blue Poles, from the National Gallery of Australia. "They had one or two projects for which they needed loans from us, and we were able to help them," Serota said. "That made it more likely that we would be able to borrow Blue Poles."

Rosenthal talks of the "pulling power" of an institution, and he thinks the Royal Academy's power is quite strong, despite not having a major permanent collection of its own. This hasn't stopped him securing the Monet show, which is not going to Paris even though, after America, France is the next biggest lender of work. How? Dogged determination, patience and persuasive persistence. The same thing happened with last year's Bonnard exhibition at the Tate. Again London was the only European venue. France was the largest lender to the exhibition, closely followed by America. But it was Serota's idea.

Academic prestige is also important in attracting shows from abroad. Varnedoe lent the RA one of MoMA's Monets because he believed the Academy had something new to say about a particular period of the artist's life. A renowned curator or expert in the field will also make collectors realise the validity and importance of the exhibition. Hence exhibitions such as David Sylvester's Francis Bacon at the Hayward Gallery last year, or Bankside's opening show in 2000, Matisse and Picasso, curated by John Golding. "Exhibitors to major exhibitions will lend for a variety of reasons," says Neil MacGregor. "Because of the intellectual context, the quality of the catalogue, and the high academic base of the gallery."

London galleries and museums have been, and perhaps always will be, criticised for missing exhibitions: the Matisse retrospective that filled the Pompidou in 1993; the Barnes Collection, released from its private Pennsylvania home for a once-only tour in 1994 that went to Paris but not London; Art and Modernism, meant to tour to three London venues in 1997 from Berlin, but which fell through at the last moment; the Rothko that is now in Paris. When it comes down to it, London has only a limited number of venues, so decisions have to be taken to forsake some shows for others. But there are also logistical problems.

It's often assumed that galleries have to pay to borrow work from collectors. Although this is extremely rare, it did happen with the Barnes Foundation tour in 1994. Its collection was up for the highest bidder. A loophole in what had been thought to be a watertight wall allowed the trustees of the Barnes Collection to tour a selection of work to raise money for repairs to the foundation's headquarters. It was Norman Rosenthal who led the fight from London. "I was the very first person on the doorstep of the Barnes collection, but in the end we were beaten by others who had more money to offer."

There are now fewer opportunities for a show to miss London. One such example, however, was the Brancusi exhibition in 1996 that Serota was eager to get. "When I was negotiating with the French," he said, "they simply said, look, this is a very fragile show, and we're not sure we're going to get the loans even for two venues (Paris and Philadelphia), let alone three. And by the time the show opens the tunnel will be open, and you can all come by train to see it here."

That was three years ago. You can imagine his riposte when, during visits to Paris in the last year, people asked Serota why they weren't getting the Pollock show: "Well, it's a very fragile show... But you can all come by train to see it here."

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