Britain's building boom for the arts

An unprecedented number of huge projects are under way as London

You could call Britain the home of time. A short distance southeast of central London is the borough of Greenwich, the reference point for world time zones. So perhaps understandably, the millennium is a big deal in Britain.

To prepare for the year 2000, the London Tourist Board estimates the city is spending $10 billion, and a big chunk of this money is earmarked for the arts. As a result, an unprecedented convergence of capital projects for major arts institutions is taking place in and around London.

Projects include the Tate Gallery's enormous new site for modern art. The British Museum, the centerpiece for big changes, is restoring its central courtyard. And the Royal Opera House has nearly completed an expansion project.

Funds are coming from a variety of sources, including the nation's Millennium Commission, the Arts Council, the national lottery, and private sources. Whatever the source, these improvements will provide an expected 30 million visitors with plenty to do when they visit London next year.

In a nation where cultural organizations depend heavily on public subsidies, art institutions traditionally had to make hard adjustments to make up for the funding gap. But two events began to reverse the course: the introduction of the national lottery in 1995 and the election of Tony Blair's Labour government in 1997.

Over the next three years, Mr. Blair's government plans to increase funding for the arts by 15 percent. Meanwhile, the National Lottery's funds - earmarked for "good causes" - include preparation for the millennium and other efforts that benefit the arts. It's the lottery that has supplied government money for arts capital projects, but not everyone is happy (see story at right).

Critics are concerned that expensive projects, such as the Sadlers Wells Theater, which was almost entirely rebuilt, will deprive other worthy projects of funds. The $350 million revamping and expansion of the Royal Opera House also has run into criticism as an overly ambitious project.

The biggest headlines have gone to the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art and the renovations at the British Museum. Both are dramatic endeavors that may greatly influence the arts and museum-going.

The New Tate, as some people are calling it, will open in May 2000 and be London's first major venue devoted entirely to modern art. Organizers hope that it will stand alongside the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York as one of the most important modern art museums in the world.

The original Tate Gallery - now the Tate Gallery of British Art - is undergoing major improvements that will enable it to better showcase works of British artists.

Meanwhile, the august British Museum is being yanked into the 21st century with a reopened central courtyard, designed by Sir Norman Foster, this year's winner of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture. The museum also will expand into space occupied until recently by the British Library.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is planning a thoroughly unconventional addition called the "Spiral" on one of London's most dignified thoroughfares - Exhibition Road. The $110 million project has leapt several important approval hurdles and has just received a $32 million anonymous pledge.

Like the Spiral, improvements to Royal Albert Hall - the "nation's village hall" - won't be completed soon enough to be considered strictly a millennium phenomenon.

An elaborate mid-Victorian building shaped a bit like an egg, Royal Albert Hall's interior space (which is almost entirely devoted to its 5,200-seat auditorium) will have greatly improved facilities and, for the first time in decades, a ventilation system.

Among the more modest projects, the Globe Theatre - a 1997 re-creation of the venue where Shakespeare acted and debuted his plays - continues work on a major exhibition on Shakespeare and building a smaller 17th-century theater adjoining it.

"The 1850s were a boom period for British culture," says Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery. "I would expect that people will look back in 50 years time at the late 1990s as a comparable boom period."

*The Millennium Commission in London can be reached at tel: 44-171-880-2001, or on the Internet at

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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