When Mark and Janet Hilbert bought their first home in 1993, the couple’s tight decorating budget prompted them to scour garage sales and consignment shops for reasonably priced furnishings and accessories. Delighted to find a watercolor painting they liked in an antique store, the Hilbert’s brought the piece home and hung it.
Discovering the Allure of California Scene Painting
“After looking at the painting for a period of time, we found that we really loved the watercolor medium because it has a certain spontaneity and realism,” says Mark Hilbert. “We went back to buy another painting in the same style, also discovering the book, California Style, by Orange native Gordon McClelland. The book covers the art genre known as California Scene painting.”
Largely unknown in the 90s and even now, the California Scene painting movement spanning the 1930s-1970s, depicts ordinary people going about their lives doing ordinary things. Illustrating California’s historical and social history, the paintings feature the work of iconic Golden State artists like Millard Sheets, Emil Kosa Jr., Phil Dike and Rex Brandt. Some of the pieces are in oil, but most are watercolors with broad, wet strokes illustrating the dramatic and expressive style of the genre.
Fascinated by the California Scene art period, the Hilberts continued acquiring paintings, eventually creating what is known as the Hilbert Collection, which currently contains approximately 500 oils, watercolors and drawings and more than 500 lithographs.
It’s uncommon to see a collection of this magnitude filled with such carefully selected pieces that are representative of the California Scene period, says Jean Stern, executive director of The Irvine Museum. “The collection is specialized and extremely high quality. The Hilberts are passionate about this period and have invested the necessary time and funds into getting the very best work.”
In addition to watercolors, the collection contains some significant rare oil paintings, notes Stern. “The oils were expensive for the artists to paint, so they generally only did them for major exhibitions or as commissioned work.” As well as being less expensive, watercolors are portable and dry quickly, which allowed the artists to work on location.
Janet Hilbert credits Mark for discovering much of the collection. “We have similar tastes in paintings, but Mark is the one with an incredible eye for exceptional pieces,” she says. “I’m often amazed at the paintings he uncovers.”
Museum in the Making
The Hilberts have loaned paintings from their collection to museums across the U.S., including local establishments such as Bowers Museum, Laguna Art Museum, The Irvine Museum and Long Beach Museum of Art. “During exhibitions over the years, Janet and I often heard people commenting how wonderful the genre was and how they’d never heard of the California Scene painters before,” says Hilbert. “This made us realize the value of creating a museum so that people could see examples of these paintings anytime.”
After looking around Orange County for a location where the collection would be shown and appreciated, they decided to approach Chapman University. “We discovered that though Chapman has experienced tremendous growth over the last 20 years thanks to visionary leadership, they didn’t have a separate art museum that specialized in a particular genre,” says Hilbert. “We felt the collection would be a perfect fit for the university and Old Towne in particular, as it’s your quintessential California town.”
When Chapman’s Executive Vice President of University Advancement, Sheryl Bourgeois, received the call from Hilbert regarding the donation of the paintings for the museum, as well as an additional $3 million to go toward building the facility, she was thrilled.
“Mark and Janet are skilled collectors, and the collection is perfect for the school with its focus on California and Orange County and how the area became what it is today,” says Bourgeois, who notes that there are so many paintings in the collection that they can potentially curate endless thematic exhibitions.
Historic Villa Park Orchards Packing House
The Hilbert Museum of California Art will eventually be located in the Villa Park Orchards Packing House. Chapman’s president, Dr. James Doti, had the idea to house the museum in the building, which closed in 2006 and was once the largest citrus packing house in Orange. The permanent gallery space in the packing house won’t be ready until 2017, but the museum will have a temporary home beginning in the fall of 2015 in a facility located next to the Partridge Dance Center on Chapman University’s main campus.
One painting you’ll likely see at the museum is the watercolor pictured in this issue. Rex Brandt’s “Surf’s Up On A Golden Day” is one of the Hilbert’s favorite pieces. Painted in the 1960s by Brandt, a well-known Newport Beach California Scene artist, the slightly abstract painting captures California’s natural light, “which is unique and unlike any other place on the planet except for a small section of North Africa,” says Hilbert. “California is known for introducing the surf culture throughout the world, and this painting does a marvelous job of conveying that culture.”