Day 6

Keeping the Dali dry: Flood threatens Beaverbrook gallery's celebrated collection

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton is home to famous works, including Salvador Dali's 'Santiago el Grande.' Director Tom Smart is working to keep them all dry.

'I'm telling the staff ... that this might be a new normal,' says director Tom Smart

Gallery director Tom Smart says the staff at the gallery started testing its flood plan back in January. (Philip Drost/CBC)

As the flood waters rise in Fredericton, Tom Smart knows exactly which painting in his gallery he would want to save.

"I'd like to say the Salvador Dali," the executive director of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery says. "But it's about 20 feet square, so I'd have to run out with a few people."

Instead, he might have to settle for a "beautiful" medieval ivory — about the size of a book — if the water level rises any more.

The Beaverbrook Gallery overlooks the St. John River's banks. It's a picturesque view in ideal circumstances, but this week it's less than desirable.

As of Friday, the water reached 5.5 metres — a record not surpassed in Saint John, N.B. since a historic flood in 1973. The province is urging more than 2,000 residents to evacuate their homes.

"As I look out the window, the river is on the other side of the glass panes, which is the good news," Smart told Day 6's Brent Bambury.

"The bad news: it's right up against the glass panes and so it's been quite a tense week."

New Brunswick is experiencing historic flooding, and staff at Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton are ready to deal with the water when it rises. (Beaverbrook Art Gallery)

Moving mountains (of artwork)

This isn't the first time the museum has squared off with mother nature.

The 1973 flood took hold of the city and put the gallery's collection at risk.

"The vault at that time was in the basement of the gallery and it [water] rose very rapidly and the paintings had to be removed very quickly," Smart said. "We did not want to repeat that."

So, the gallery made a plan to fight back. They installed flood gates to keep water out and generators to run water pumps if it gets in. If things got bad, they would move the paintings.

"Last week we took the art off the wall where there are galleries that are below the flood level," Smart said.

It's no easy feat. Some paintings — decades, if not centuries, old — are fragile to the touch.

"It's very important that you're mindful when you [move them]," Smart said. It can take days to shuffle the paintings in a gallery as curators move carefully around corners, gripping the art firmly so they don't drop.

Rising flood waters have triggered a voluntary evacuation order for nearly 2,000 people. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

'A new normal'

The curator has seen three major floods in his museum career.

"I moved to Winnipeg in 1997 on May the 1st for the flood of the century," Smart said.

"When I came here last fall, I said let's get that flood drill out because I have a funny feeling: my bunions are hurting."

Still, the idea of moving his most recent gallery has never crossed his mind. The building was gifted to the city of Fredericton by Lord Beaverbank in 1959 and remains a landmark.

"As a matter of fact, we built a new wing last year," Smart said.

While the doors have been closed to visitors this past week, he is eager to open them back up.

Water is receding around the building, he says, but hydrostatic pressure against the floor and walls is making it unsafe to let visitors in.

"If we don't see any [pressure], then we're going to push the all clear and have the stuff back in here and open to the public as soon as we can get the art back on the wall," Smart said.

But Smart knows that the all clear will last only until the next flood.

"I'm telling the staff ... that this might be a new normal."

Tom Smart says this is how high the water would be in the gallery's bottom level if it wasn't for their flood plan. (Philip Drost/CBC)

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