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How New Brunswick's Beaverbrook Art Gallery is finally getting its big break

Circa 1961. Hon. Marshall Menzies Porter of Calgary, Alberta, at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick

By most accounts, Max Aitken didn't know a lot about art. That didn't stop the first Lord Beaverbrook from collecting it, though – by the time he died, at 85 in 1964, he'd acquired almost 2,000 paintings, drawings and artifacts – nor from having opinions about it.

In other words, the man knew what he liked. While he consulted experts from time to time, he tended to take their advice only when, as one wag observed, "it agreed with his preconceptions." In this regard, he had a fondness for portraiture, figurative art, landscapes, narrative paintings, the plump bosom of a William Etty nude. Abstract art he hated, calling it "intolerable" and "nonsense," and predicting "it will die."

Born in Ontario, raised in New Brunswick (a province for which he retained a lifelong affection), he was the son of a Presbyterian minister who, upon immigrating to the U.K. in 1910, rose to prominence as a politician, press baron and Winston Churchill confidant. But Beaverbrook also had what one of his biographers called "a hard-nose sense of value." Translation: He was cheap. Yet amazingly, for all the apparent philistinism and penny-pinching, his lordship pulled together a pretty fine potpourri of pictures, much of which, starting in 1959, he installed in the Fredericton gallery that bears his name to this day. Indeed, there's general agreement the Beaverbrook Art Gallery's permanent collection is the most significant and valuable of any art institution in Atlantic Canada. It's certainly the most eclectic: What other city of 55,000 can boast of having works by Botticelli, Augustus John, Tom Thomson and Salvador Dali under one roof?

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Now the gallery is putting what chief curator and newly named director Terry Graff calls "the crème de la crème of that collection," 75 works in total, on the road for the next three years, beginning with the current two-month exhibition at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Fla.

Called Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the exhibition so far is booked into six cities (two U.S., four Canadian), with more to be announced. While the Beaverbrook has lent many of its holdings to exhibitions around the world – in 2010, more than 250,000 visitors scanned its famous Dali canvas, Santiago El Grande , at the High Museum in Atlanta, Ga. – Masterworks represents the first-ever large-scale marshalling of its most illustrious objets for an international and national tour, accompanied by the publication of a hardcover coffee-table book from the gallery and Fredericton's Goose Lane Editions.

Included in the show are such distinguished works as the aforementioned Santiago El Grande, along with The Fountain of Indolence (1834) by J.M.W. Turner, Lucian Freud's Hotel Bedroom (1954), A Passing Storm (1876) by James Tissot and Lucas Cranach the Elder's Lucretia (1530), plus several strong Canadian paintings. Most notable among these is the vivid winter scene Merrymaking (1860), perhaps the finest extant Cornelius Krieghoff canvas, which the normally tight-fisted Beaverbrook bought for $25,000 in 1957, at that time the most ever paid for a Canadian artwork.

It's safe to say that a decade or so ago the Beaverbrook Art Gallery's collection, based in a rather out-of-the-way city, was more known about than known, certainly in the rest of Canada and internationally. This all started to change in 2004 when the gallery became entangled in a much-publicized and expensive dispute with its long-time benefactors, the Beaverbrook U.K. and Canadian foundations, over who ultimately owned 211 works in the permanent collection. As the case dragged on (the dispute with the U.K. group wasn't settled until 2010; the one with the Canadian side, involving 78 works, 11 of which are included in the Masterworks tour, remains unresolved) and media attention intensified, images of the art in question began to circulate widely and gain familiarity.

Ironically, when Bernard Riordon, former director of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, was hired as the Beaverbrook gallery director in 2002, it was on the understanding, in part, with the foundations that he would help turn the collection into a touring, revenue-generating asset while raising the gallery's profile and attendance as a cultural destination. (In 2011, the Beaverbrook's visitors totalled 24,000.) Although it's true the disputes have sucked up millions of dollars in legal fees, "they've had some pluses in terms of drawing attention to what we have," Graff said recently. "You couldn't buy the marketing and promotion we had for the collection." All of which made the "Masterworks" concept an easier sell to both North American galleries and sponsors when it was pitched. Observed Graff: "It's opening up a lot of relationships."

Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery is at the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Fla., until Mar. 31; the Mobile Museum of Art in Mobile, Ala., from Dec. 5 through Mar. 2, 2014; the Glenbow Museum in Calgary May through August, 2014; the Winnipeg Art Gallery September through December, 2014; the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in the summer of 2015; The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery (St. John's) in the summer of 2016. Other venues to be announced.

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