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New Brunswick's Beaverbrook Art Gallery offers world class experience

FREDERICTON — Jon Shrubsole made the pilgrimage all the way from Dayton, Ohio.

On the edge of the Saint John River, Fredericton's Beaverbrook Art Gallery has a back story — and a collection of works — ordinarily unlikely to be found in a sleepy provincial capital.

"There are many famous artists — the Group of Seven, really great world class artists," Shrubsole says as he walks through the gallery for the first time.

"I knew they had added the new wing about a year ago and rehung everything, and I wanted to see it."

Shrubsole said he's visited many galleries around the world and was impressed.

The gallery — which turns 60 next year — is home to more than 5,300 works by artists including Salvador Dali, Lucian Freud, J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Gainsborough.

"It has an international reputation and is one of the finest art galleries in Canada of its kind," director Thomas Smart says on a stroll through the building.

The gallery was given to the province of New Brunswick by Ontario-born British press baron Lord Beaverbrook in 1959. He built the original building and endowed it with a collection.

That collection has grown ever since, and the building has seen numerous additions including an impressive new pavilion that opened in 2017 — expanding the gallery by about 30 per cent and making it the largest in Atlantic Canada.

"If you haven't been here for a few years, you're seeing a whole new Beaverbrook Art Gallery, not just in the new pavilion, but in the way the whole space has been retrofitted," Smart said.

"We have some of the finest international works, British modern paintings, French paintings, some medieval ivories. It really is a large collection that shows not only Beaverbrook's hand as a collector but his taste as an international collector of young contemporaries. We have a beautiful Freud. It was purchased by Beaverbrook when Freud was really at the beginning of his career," he said.

The gallery is broken into different areas, some small, some large, featuring different collections and themes. There are new things at every turn, giving an impression that the inside of the building is much larger than the outside view would imply.

Past visitors will remember the huge and impressive Dali painting Santiago el Grande, which commanded a large wall near the main entrance. It now has a new location far from the entrance but well worth the stroll.

Dali intended the painting to be viewed from below, and visitors are encouraged to lay on the floor with their feet to the wall and look up. The viewer is left with the impression that the horse is coming out of the painting.

The gallery gets more than 40,000 visitors each year, and on any given day that can include classes of students and tourists who have travelled from points across the country and around the world.

Despite the recent expansion, only about 20 per cent of the collection is on display at any time.

"Our vaults are full and our galleries are full," Smart said.

He said some works are on loan to other galleries or part of travelling exhibits, and the gallery continues to add to its collection.

Smart said they have been working closely with First Nations, and recently took possession of a unique birch bark hat.

The gallery also hosts a variety of events, especially since the addition of the huge pavilion with its high ceilings and large windows overlooking the river.

"We like to think of it as the front room of Fredericton. It showcases the art beautifully, we have performances in here, readings, we have dance, it is such a flexible space," Smart said.

Going forward, Smart says the next year will see development of more of the outside space around the gallery, including the relocation of the large statute of Lord Beaverbrook from Officers' Square to the grassy area next to the gallery, known as The Green.


If you go:

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery is open Tuesdays through Sundays.

Gallery admission is free for members and children six and under. General admission of $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $5 for students and $20 for families. On Thursday evenings, admission is by donation.

The gallery also has Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.  

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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