Words carry weight, and the words of a New York art education professor had a profound effect on the town of Westport through the conduit of his students, Burt and Ann Chernow.

The Westport couple provided the town with a significant cultural legacy that augments the community's rich artistic and creative heritage. They established the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

The inaugural event of that celebration, an exhibit titled "Face to Face: Portraits from WSPAC as It Turns 50," features more than 20 portraits from the collection. It opened last Friday at the Westport Library and continues through June 25.

Howard Conant, a teacher at New York University in the 1960s, encouraged his students to build art collections for public schools, arguing that children had access to a library of books, but not to a library of art.

"Burt and I, being good students, went out and did what he asked us to do," said Ann Chernow, a Westport artist and Burt's widow. The late artist, art historian and Greens Farms art teacher founded the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection in 1964 to expose children to original art. He is also responsible for the nationally renowned art collection at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.

"We thought it was important for students to be exposed to visual beauty. Art is part of our life. Studies show that students who are involved in art do better in their other classes," said Ann Chernow, who, with her husband, approached many major artists to obtain the initial works for the collection. Only one was unsupportive, actually chasing them from his apartment "using his cane as in a Dickens' novel."

When the art collection opened on Sept. 8, 1966, at Greens Farms School, it comprised more than 100 pieces donated by 80 area artists and collectors and included paintings, sculptures, graphic arts, illustrations, photographs, and other media. The first donation in 1964 was Singing Policeman, a pen and ink line drawing by the renowned American artist Ben Shan, who was on the advisory faculty of the Famous Artists School in Westport.

In its 50 years the WSPAC has amassed an inventory of about 1,500 works by nationally recognized artists, who make Westport home, as well as by giants of the modern art world including Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein.

More than two-thirds of the collection is displayed in Westport's schools and the rest in other public buildings. The goal of WSPAC is to make art an integral part of the daily lives of students, teachers and all Westporters, according to Kathie Bennewitz, the town's first art curator.

One resident calls the art "treasures hidden in plain sight."

"There isn't anything like it anywhere. Maybe in private schools and on the college level, but not in elementary schools," Ann Chernow said.

Bennewitz said it is because of the intrinsic heritage and appreciation of the arts that this collection exists in Westport.

Staples High School Principal John Dodig credits the collection, in part, with students' inherent art appreciation.

"As they grow up in Westport they are surrounded by art, and they hear either overtly or subliminally from adults how important the arts, all the arts, are to a person's development," Dodig said. In his ten years at the school not one of these art works has been damaged "and we're talking about priceless pieces of art."

"To have a building full of art, so every place that you walk you see either student-produced art or professional artists' produced art, is part of that Westport culture, and the school represents Westport," Dodig said.

"It's a part of who these kids are. They expect to see art," he said.

Two sculptures were recently donated to Staples, one of which the WSPAC will dedicate this spring as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations. Dodig said his hope is that other artists and collectors will donate sculptures to WSPAC for installation on the Staples' campus.

Donations speak to the vitality of the collection and its history and future, Bennewitz said. Nothing is purchased. There is no budget for procurement of art. Rather, WSPAC relies on the generosity of donors -- the artists themselves, artists' families, and collectors.

"We do receive donations of money and we do seek grants. Those funds are used for framing, conservation and displays," she said.

Bennewitz and others are setting the groundwork for the collection's next 50 years through infrastructure and policies. The modern chapter of the collection is in the effort to create an online database "so the collection can be as much an education tool as it is a cultural resource," Bennewitz said.

The multi-year project will require digitizing and scanning images, researching and updating of information on each piece, and addressing copywriting issues.

There will be an opening reception for the "Face to Face" exhibit on this Friday, April 4, from 6-7:30 p.m., in the Westport Library's Great Hall. Related programs will include a guided tour of the collection on Saturday, May 10, from 1-4 p.m. Reservations are required. A docent-led tour and discussion of the exhibit, a portrait workshop for middle school children, and other programs are planned.

For more information, visit www.westportlibrary.org or call 203-291-4800.