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Artist Gordon Smith in his studio at his home in West Vancouver May 10, 2007.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

B.C. painter Gordon Smith issued a passionate plea to Vancouver city council on Thursday, urging councillors to create a new Vancouver Art Gallery that is worthy of its collection.

"It's so urgent. I like the old building very much, but it's inadequate."

Mr. Smith was speaking at a meeting where council was to vote on recommendations for a proposed move by the VAG to a new purpose-built building at 688 Cambie, the old Larwill Park site, across from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The issue was put over until Feb. 1, but Mr. Smith, 91, was one of several speakers who would be unable to return.

He told council that in order to view some works by great Vancouver artists, he has had to travel to other cities.

"Geoffrey Farmer's an artist here," he said. "I had to go to Toronto to see his installation because our gallery's not big enough for that installation. So I went to Toronto to see it. You have to see Jeff Wall only in New York or in Berlin. I went to New York when his exhibition opened in New York. I went to Ian Wallace's exhibition when he opened in London."

One of the points made repeatedly by VAG officials arguing for a new building is that the current facility, a converted courthouse in the city centre, is so small that the gallery can show only about three per cent of its permanent collection at any given time.

"It's very hard to show our collection," Mr. Smith said, "so we've got to allow for this to happen."

A staff report recommends the city set aside about two acres of the land at the Larwill Park site for the VAG for two years. During that time, the VAG would be asked to show evidence that moving to the site is the best option for the gallery, as well as present a business case and proof that it can successfully raise the necessary funds.

The Vancouver Concert Hall and Theatre Society has been lobbying the city for the same piece of land. The coalition of more than 20 music, theatre and performing arts organizations, including the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, wants to build a concert hall complex that would include a 1,950-seat concert hall and 450-seat multi-purpose theatre.

The report says the gallery is a more viable project for that site, but that the concert hall proposal should continue to be part of the discussion.

In presenting the report to council on Thursday, Richard Newirth, the city's managing director of cultural services, said staff are recommending that "we include the Vancouver Concert Hall and Theatre Society in the discussions to see whether it's possible to accommodate them on this site or whether we can work with them on developing their vision on another site."

While the Concert Hall and Theatre Society has endorsed the report, it's calling on the city to set aside the entire block for cultural use, not the two-thirds the report recommends. The city has proposed the VAG share the space with an office tower.

At City Hall on Thursday, coalition member David Pay, who runs the popular Music On Main series, said the downtown core needs a purpose-built music facility.

"Having world class ensembles perform in converted vaudeville houses and multipurpose facilities is like asking an Olympic hockey team to play in a converted swimming pool. You can freeze the water, but you can never expect the game to be played at the level that it should be."

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