Something happened: people were lining up to see contemporary art. Was this the year we opened our eyes? By Adrian Searle
When I realised I was going to have to queue - to actually queue - to see a minority-interest exhibition of contemporary art in London, I realised something was up. One expects to hang about for Renoir and to book weeks in advance, via a credit-card hot-line, for poor old Vincent Van Gogh; respectful, shuffling tedium is the order of the day at the Cezanne retrospective in Paris. But a twice-round-the-block hour in the rain is not what I expect in some dingy Southwark side-street, to see an installation by Robert Wilson featuring a lot of old shoes, some doomy sound effects and a live axolotl. It is unusual, too, to be stalled at the door before admittance to a room piled up with second-hand clothes, courtesy of Christian Boltanski, at the Serpentine Gallery, or to have to form a crocodile in order to catch a glimpse of the actress Tilda Swinton doing absolutely nothing at all.

Swinton, who describes herself as a "non-performer", gave perhaps her most celebrated non-performance in "The Maybe" at the Serpentine last summer. The public came in their thousands. They came to see a woman lying down, wearing her ordinary clothes, pretending to sleep. They came to fog the glass of her casket as they peered down at her, and some came to whisper dirty things to her, out of earshot of the gallery's specially hired guards. You can't always choose your audience.

This was the year that brought home the fact that a lot of people in Britain like contemporary art. They may not buy it, they may not even know much about it, but more and more people are taking an interest. Swinton's hugely popular collaboration with Cornelia Parker was not, in itself, a particularly novel artistic event. The artist-as-artwork has become a commonplace of the latter half of this century, while Swinton, despite Orlando and her appearances in Derek Jarman movies, is not exactly a household name. Nor is Cornelia Parker, whose own contribution to the show was, in part, a homage to a brief passage in Paul Auster's novel Moon Palace. "The Maybe" was, one would have thought, fringe-circuit stuff.

People who a year or two ago would have stayed away in droves are beginning to form art's audience because they are curious. They're not swarming in simply to laugh, to complain that it's a scandal and a waste of the taxpayers' money. There is a feeling in the air that contemporary art might, after all, have its rewards. The media have no stake at all in hyping what they clearly fail to comprehend, but feel compelled to treat art as an offshoot of the more accessible forms of popular, mass culture. The down-side is the assumption that art is entertainment, a spectacle, a freak show. Queues for some of the really unentertaining, hermetic, quiet, slower kinds of contemporary art remain as small as ever.

The hordes at "The Maybe" and at Wilson's HG, the multitudes at the Turner Prize show at the Tate, and at the execrable Take Me (I'm Yours) are a recent phenomenon in this country. These people can't all be tourists, they can't all be committed gallery-goers and they certainly aren't all art students, who can't afford the fare into town and are too busy being conceptual in bed all day.

This new, youngish public knows that David Byrne once collaborated with Robert Wilson; it knows about Britpop and the bratpack and Damien and Damon from Blur; it has heard, perhaps without being aware of it, artist Angus Fairhurst's band playing alongside Stereolab and Pulp. The young audience probably couldn't care less about Laurie Anderson or Brian Eno but it went to see "Safe Storage" in Wembley because there was this thing in the atmosphere that made them curious: they felt, perhaps rightly, that art has connections to other kinds of experiences that they do relate to.

For some, the growing audience is an annoyance. I like the fact that not too many people visit the Wallace Collection, one can, by and large, go and look at Fragonard and Titian in peace. Nothing looks better than an artwork in an empty room, with oneself as its only spectator. One is happier without other people's unasked-for, often shouted explanations, the tinny, background whine of acoustaguides, the gawping and shoving.

It's worth remembering that there would be a scrummage for a Matisse show even though, as far as is known, he never kept a drum kit in his basement, nor conducted any illicit medical experiments in the name of art, though I'd probably warm to him more if he had.

n In tomorrow's 'The Moment When', Jonathan Glancey looks at the lottery's go-ahead for the Tate's new home at Bankside, where contemporary architecture meets conservation meets inner-city renewal