Gordon Smith, the legendary Canadian painter, has an extensive personal art collection and a dream: He wants it to stay in West Vancouver, where he has lived for more than 60 years.
In his Arthur Erickson-designed house by the ocean, he explained his decision to donate the collection – which includes works by other renowned Canadian artists including Jeff Wall, Douglas Coupland and Bill Reid – to the West Vancouver Museum. The tiny museum also has a dream: expansion.
"I think the collection should be kept in West Vancouver," he told The Globe and Mail on Monday. "I'm 96 for God's sake; I'm going to die soon. I want to get rid of the bloody things," said Mr. Smith, who turns 96 this June.
The donation is also meant to send a message to other collectors and philanthropists in West Van: the museum has designs on a new facility, and Mr. Smith has been a vocal advocate for the project, which is still in the fairly early stages.
"That's got to be built," he said, sitting in his paint-splattered wheelchair in his studio, where he still works daily. "West Vancouver particularly needs a museum. Everyone – North Vancouver, Kelowna, everyone's got museums. And then I think it's so important because it's a very affluent community and they should have some culture here."
Mr. Smith was born in England and moved to Winnipeg in 1933 when he was 14. In 1943, he was seriously wounded in Sicily during the Second World War (he chatted with Queen Elizabeth about this experience when he was in London last month for the opening of the refurbished Canada House – which commissioned a painting by Mr. Smith). He settled in Vancouver in 1944 and moved to the north shore in 1953 – into one of the first homes designed by Arthur Erickson, a friend. He has lived in his current Erickson home near Lighthouse Park since 1966.
Some of its walls, once jammed with art, are showing a lot of white space now, as a result of the donation. (He didn't give it all away. "I kept a Matisse," he points out, along with works still hanging by Mr. Coupland and others, and photographs of old friends such as Lawren Harris.)
Mr. Smith and his wife, Marion, who died in 2009, built a strong collection in the early days by trading with other artists such as Jack Shadbolt and B.C. Binning. "I stood on the shoulders of giants because these were all my friends," said Mr. Smith. The Smiths also purchased work by emerging artists. And many of the works were gifts from artist friends.
"What's really, really interesting about the collection is it really illustrates his importance as one of the most respected Canadian artists by showing his personal connections and friendships with other Canadian artists," said West Vancouver Museum director/curator Darrin Morrison, who is still in the process of cataloging the works. "A lot of them are personally inscribed."
They include a Rodney Graham self-portrait, Untitled (Musician) (2009), featuring Mr. Graham in his studio wearing chaps and playing an accordion.
A whimsical graphite drawing by Damian Moppett features a number of stereotypical Canadian animal icons – beavers, a moose.
From Mr. Coupland there's one of his Penguins – collage works made with old Penguin book covers (in this case, the book is Billy Liar) and in large bold lettering the word "hello" over top.
All three were birthday gifts.
Another gem in the collection is a small early 1960s abstract painting by Mr. Wall, a contemporary art-world superstar who is best known for his conceptual photographs.
The gift from Mr. Smith – the largest single donation in the museum's history – provides a boost to efforts to build a Centre for Art, Architecture + Design in West Vancouver. The proposed 30,000-square-foot facility, to be built in Ambleside, is estimated to cost about $25-million. The facility's mandate is to reflect the history of the community, particularly around modernist architecture and artists who were the vanguard of the B.C. arts scene. Hollingsworth Architecture Inc. has been hired and plans for the facility are being refined before an official capital campaign is launched.
"It's a huge show of support for us," Mr. Morrison said. "Gordon's long been an advocate for a new facility and this is a further show of support from him towards that goal."
During a tour of his home and studio (where he is working on a new series he calls Ready Mades; one work is made from oyster shells procured during a London dinner with friends, including the philanthropist Michael Audain), Mr. Smith stressed repeatedly that he wants the donation to bring attention to the new museum project as opposed to the artist.
"Not me," he said. "The bloody museum. I'm tired of Gordon Smith."
A selection of works from the collection will be on display at the West Vancouver Museum March 14, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.