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Gordon Smithin his studio at his home in West Vancouver May 10, 2007.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Gordon Smith was visibly excited as he admired the masterpieces lining the walls of an improvised North Vancouver gallery Friday, safe in the knowledge that these treasured works are finally headed for a new home.

Mr. Smith co-founded the 400-strong collection of Canadian works - one of the province's largest - with Bill Reid and Jack Shadbolt 20 years ago.

Two North Vancouver art teachers - Ken James and Bill MacDonald - had approached the three celebrated B.C. artists with an idea: An art program for kids sustained by the sales of artwork by Canadian artists.

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The premise was simple. The artists would create an original piece, which the North Vancouver School District would then buy and house in an educational gallery. A set number of original prints would then be sold and the profits used to run a program called Artists for Kids.

The first piece bought was a drum-the one now seen on the $20 bill-crafted by Bill Reid. It cost $5,000 and sales of the prints reached over $12,500 in the first week.

Today the growing collection boasts contributions from Mr. Smith, Douglas Coupland, Rodney Graham, Betty Goodwin, Michael Snow, Edward Burtynsky and Guido Molinari.

"I cannot believe what Bill [MacDonald]as done. All of these could be in the National Gallery," said 91-year-old Mr. Smith.

Certainly, the last place one might expect to find them would be in the remodeled gym of an old school - and it won't be there for much longer.

The Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art will open in 2012, offering 14,000-square-feet for art shows, two classrooms and administrative offices.

The gallery's new location was made possible by a $2-million gift from the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts that funded a 40-year-lease of the space.

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"I'm a Gordon Smith groupie," said Foundation chairman and noted local philanthropist, Michael Audain. "He's done so much for this program and so much for art in British Columbia."

Mr. Audain said he wanted to help provide a home for the collection in the hopes that children are exposed to and inspired by the work of Canada's artists. He said he also hopes his own family will be able to visit and learn from the art.

Approximately $250,000 of artwork is sold out of the gallery each year and goes straight to funding Artists for Kids.

The partnership with the Audain Foundation is an innovative way to sustain high-quality public education, said school superintendent John Lewis.

Mr. Lewis said there have been concerns about private money funding public education, but in these days of budget constraints school districts have to be creative.

Hospitals have long practiced private fundraising for new buildings and care centres, he said. Plus the community supports the school district.

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"Communities have expressed they want to enhance public education while still maintaining the value of having it accessible to all students and all families," he said.

In the future, Mr. MacDonald hopes to make Artists for Kids available to other school districts across the province.

"We think that in ten years this will be for art what Science World is for science," Mr. MacDonald said.

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