Among Canada’s provincial capital cities, only Charlottetown has a smaller population than Fredericton. Yet, this New Brunswick centre of 59,405 people contains enough metropolitan sensibilities that you might think it has been displaced from Toronto’s Queen West neighbourhood or Montreal’s Mile End. Its arts and music scene — driven by a university crowd and patronage from the city’s residents and businesses — is what makes Fredericton an appealing stop on a visit to the Maritime provinces.
The city’s downtown is a compact stretch with notable attractions, including some that are among the finest in the entire country, not just New Brunswick. The Capital Complex is a three-venue property in the heart of the city’s downtown. It hosts emerging local talent and touring acts from outside of the province. At the lower-level Capital Bar, visitors may feel like they’re in Toronto’s Dakota Tavern or Montreal’s La Vitrola, small music venues that have hosted some of the nation’s premier talents. A short stay is all you need to realize Fredericton has a vibrant music scene — a fact underscored by the city’s role as host of what’s considered the leading music festival in Atlantic Canada.
Each September, the Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival fills the downtown with music and revelry. In 2019, Harvest set a record for attendees, with roughly 100,000 showing up during the six-day event. Revenue approached $1 million as acts such as Nathaniel Rateliff and former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant drew large crowds. The event is so important to the city that it receives approximately one-third of the municipality’s nearly $200,000 annual budget allocated to supporting festivals. In 2020, Harvest celebrates its 30th anniversary and, although artists have not been announced as yet, big names can be expected.
While music is the most popular art form visitors to Fredericton can enjoy, it is the visual arts that makes the city remarkable. The arts culture runs deep and long in Fredericton, whose roots go as far back as 1692. In the 1900s, its most famous resident was newspaper publisher Max Aitken, aka Lord Beaverbrook, a strong supporter of the city and a patron of the arts. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, which opened in 1959, is one of Canada’s leading museums, housing a stunning and globally renowned masterpiece whose presence in tiny Fredericton is a story in itself.
“Santiago El Grande” is a 13-foot Salvador Dali opus meant to hang in a cathedral near Madrid. But it ended up in the hands of Marcia Anastasia Christoforides, known as Fredericton’s Lady Dunn because she was married to industrial magnate and stockbroker Sir James Dunn. The Dunns had a deal with Dali for a commissioned piece of artwork, which he did not deliver. Reputedly, Dali was confronted by Lady Dunn in New York in 1958, shortly after “Santiago El Grande” debuted at the Brussels World’s Fair. Dali decided his work would go to Dunn, who by this time was a widow and a friend of Aitken. She gifted the painting to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery upon its opening in 1959. (She would marry Aitken in 1963 and become Lady Beaverbrook.) Because “Santiago El Grande” was created with a vaulted cathedral ceiling in mind, Dali used a technique to make a 3D effect to further captivate the viewer. The effect can only be seen when you are staring at the painting from its base. So you need to get on your back and look up to observe the incredible detail and feel the mind-bending perceptions Dali wanted you to see. A museum like the Louvre or the Prado definitely would not allow its patrons to lie en masse to observe one of their pieces (more likely, they would use their access to funds to build a cathedral-like gallery to house the work), but the Beaverbrook encourages guests to get on their back and look up to marvel at the piece.
Thanks to the Dunns’ friendship with Dali, there are also six other works in the museum by the master of surrealism. None is nearly as magnificent as “Santiago El Grande” but their presence is still a testament to the stature of this little museum and its collection.
Dali isn’t the only icon prominently featured at the Beaverbrook. Fans of Canadian art must also make the pilgrimage to the the gallery to see the work of Alex Colville. The modern artist known for striking, sometimes sinister, and often uncomfortable images of men and their environment is a fixture in the museum. His sketches reveal some of his genius as they show how he mathematically planned his paintings, using geometry and architectural components to plot the figures and the colour schemes in his work.
Paintings by Canada’s 19th-century artistic pioneers such as Cornelius Krieghoff and Homer Watson are also part of the Beaverbrook’s permanent collection. Twentieth-century modernistic giants like Jean-Paul Riopelle are represented too in the diverse showcase.
For fans of moving pictures, the Silver Wave Film Festival, which has ties to the Toronto International Film Festival, takes place each fall, bringing independent productions to the capital. Since its inception in 2001, Silver Wave has seen an increase in attendance each year.
These days, art isn’t just applied to what we enjoy with our eyes and ears, but the flavours we taste, as well. Artisanal beermakers have created their own modern movement in the city. There’s a vibrant craft-beer scene in Fredericton and one of the best places to sample the creations is right next door to the Beaverbrook.
The Joyce Pub features 36 taps serving locally brewed beer, cider, and mead. Part of the Crowne Plaza Fredericton-Lord Beaverbrook Hotel, the Joyce has been refined with renovations and a devotion to spotlighting New Brunswick’s food culture. Progressive pub fare (umami fries served with hot-and-sour mayonnaise for $9, a duck confit “naanwich” with maple curry mayo for $17) and seasonal ingredients are a focus of the menu. But it also has plenty of familiar items, including massive burgers ($18) and bacon-wrapped scallops ($4 each).
The pub’s mead comes from the hotel, which cultivates honey from honeybees on its roof. The honey is sent to a local producer who turns it into two varieties of mead, both outstanding and available for sipping at either the Joyce or Maxwell’s, the hotel’s flagship restaurant.
Nearby, Lunar Rogue has received plenty of attention nationally and internationally for its scotch collection. Meanwhile, for more avant-garde choices in food and drink, head to 11th Mile, where cocktails are a big part of the draw. Just around the corner from the Capital Complex, 11th Mile has a small menu of primarily share plates. You’ll find unique flavours such as tagarashi-spiced popcorn ($4), and shaved Brussels sprout salad ($13) served with a soft egg.
Clever and creative ideas, in a city that abounds with them.
More About Visiting Fredericton
Where to Stay: The Crowne Plaza Fredericton-Lord Beaverbrook Hotel is on the banks of the St. John River and in an ideal location for exploring Fredericton. Room Rates: A recent search of the hotel’s booking engine returned a starting price of $170.53 for a weekend night in March.
Tourism Info: The city’s tourism board website can help you plan your visit with more information about events and attractions in 2020.
Vacay.ca Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi was a visiting journalist of the Eating Harvest Symposium, as well as Destination New Brunswick, Visit Saint John, and Fredericton Tourism. This article is the third in an ongoing series on tourism in the province.