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Vancouver philanthropist Michael Audain in October 2011.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Philanthropist and art collector Michael Audain is donating $5-million to the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, to create the Audain School of Visual Arts at the university's planned Great Northern Way Campus. Mr. Audain, who has donated millions to various art institutions – and is building his own museum in Whistler to house his extensive personal collection – calls Emily Carr "indisputably" the best art school in Canada.

"I believe that Emily Carr is one of the world's leading art schools," said Mr. Audain on Thursday. "And I also think that it's been a major contributor to Vancouver becoming an important centre for the visual arts."

In January, the B.C. government announced $113-million in funding for the planned $134-million Great Northern Way facility. The lead gift from the Audain Foundation for the Arts helps narrow the funding gap to about $16-million and could be key in triggering interest from other potential donors, according to university president and vice-chancellor Ron Burnett.

"In talking to a lot of fundraisers, one of the things that has come up is that in today's climate, $5-million is an enormous amount of money," said Dr. Burnett. "He's leaving an amazing legacy throughout B.C. He's a remarkable philanthropist."

Emily Carr's current facility on Granville Island was designed for 800 students, but the university's registration has grown to 1850. In addition, some 3000 people attend part-time continuing education courses each week. The new facility will be able to accommodate up to 2200 students.

"I had a tour of the school not long ago and I noticed how cramped the present facilities are," said Mr. Audain, who has made his fortune as a home developer, and spent much of it on art and supporting visual art institutions.

"I think Emily Carr does contribute to the creative economy in Vancouver ... and [the creative economy is] surely got to be our future here, so I think it's pretty important that we have an art school of which we can be very proud," said Mr. Audain. "I think it can serve the whole province in that regard."

The Audain School will encompass the Faculty of Visual Art + Material Practice and house studio-based areas of study, including painting, ceramics, print media, illustration, photography, sculpture and drawing – areas which Dr. Burnett says are core elements of the curriculum.

"It's interesting that the generation that one assumes is entirely devoted to the virtual, rushes into these material practices with delight and sticks with them quite deliberately," said Dr. Burnett. "This generation does not want to see [these disciplines] disappear. We have a metal shop that people use as actively as our digital labs."

Mr. Audain's extensive art collection includes works from many artists who have attended or taught at Emily Carr, including Ken Lum, Brian Jungen and Sonny Assu, in addition to works by the university's namesake.

"They have [always] attracted a very distinguished faculty and that's the great thing about the school: You've got these very important artists who are prepared to work with the students and challenge them and it just seems a great place," said Mr. Audain. "If I were starting over maybe I would have applied to go there."

Construction on the new facility is scheduled to begin in May 2014, and be completed by July 2016. A formal Request for Qualifications was issued on Thursday.