Gardena High School's Extraordinary Art Collection - Jul / Aug 19

Gardena High School in Gardena—a city in the South Bay region of Los Angeles—owns one of the most spectacular assemblages of California art in the state.  It’s a stunning collection of paintings founded a hundred years ago, donated to the school by its graduating senior classes with funds they raised themselves, celebrated by the late Huell Howser in an episode of his Visiting television series, and today lauded as “remarkable” and “one of a kind” by art experts.

The extraordinary Gardena High School Art Collection can be seen now through October 19 at the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University. GIFTED: Collecting the Art of California at Gardena High School, 1919-1956 is a major exhibition that examines the famed art collection in a display of more than 70 paintings, as well as archival materials.  Curated by Susan M. Anderson, former curator of the Laguna Art Museum, it’s the largest exhibition of the collection yet publicly mounted, and the first time the collection in its near-entirety has been on display in more than 60 years.

“The Gardena High School Art Collection (GHSAC) is widely acknowledged as having one of the outstanding assemblages of California Impressionism in the country,” says Jean Stern, senior curator at the UCI Irvine Institute and Museum for California Art and Director Emeritus of the Irvine Museum.  “What began exactly 100 years ago, in 1919, as a lesson in art appreciation for the high school’s graduating senior class matured into an exceptional permanent collection, an art association and a cherished community tradition,” says Stern.  “The GHSAC enriched the lives of an entire community for more than three decades, leaving a tangible legacy of the community’s ideals.”

From 1919 to 1956, students in Gardena High School’s senior class selected, purchased and donated some 72 works of art to the school as class gifts.  Each class would plan elaborate fundraising measures to bolster the funds to buy the paintings, including, for a while, an annual banquet that the local community enthusiastically supported, at a princely ticket price of 50 cents per person.  (A painting in those early years could be purchased for $300 or $400, especially from artists who were not yet “big names.”  Many of the artists who created these early purchases did become very famous later on.)

Over the years, the artists, federal art projects and other individuals and organizations also made many gifts of art to the collection.  In 1923, Gardena High School designed a new auditorium to house the permanent collection, establishing the first public art gallery in Southern California with a collection of regional art.  Since the mid-1950s, the collection has been in storage and unavailable for viewing by the public.  The GIFTED exhibition provides the first opportunity to see the collection in its near-entirety since 1956.

In 2013, GHS alumni created the nonprofit organization GHS Art Collection, Inc. for the protection and preservation of the works of art owned by the Gardena High School Student Body.

“The exercise in collecting and organizing an art exhibition exposed the students and the wider community to lessons in art appreciation, as well as in good citizenship, collaboration and debate.  The collection still ties generations of students and community members together in the Gardena Valley,” says Bruce Dalrymple, an alumnus of the high school and board president of the GHS Art Collection, Inc.

“In anticipation of the 100th anniversary, we called on the community once more to raise funding to have the paintings examined and treated by a professional conservator and moved off-campus to storage with proper humidity and climate control,” says Dalrymple.  “We also sought out an art historian to tell the extraordinary story of the collection for future generations to enjoy.  It is an example of the power of art to bring a diverse population together.”

The exhibition catalogue, a 216-page, color-illustrated publication researched and written by Anderson, is on sale at the Hilbert Museum.  The catalogue is the definitive study of the history and importance of the collection within a regional and national context.  It recounts the fascinating story of the collection, beginning just after World War I.  At that time, Gardena was a small farming community in the southwest corner of Los Angeles County with a low population density, a diverse populace, and a smaller wealth base than other parts of the county.

The collection’s story places the school’s ambitious artistic endeavor within the context of the wider cultural scene in Los Angeles—beginning with the emergence of a small bohemian Arts and Crafts community in the Arroyo Seco of Pasadena at the turn of the twentieth century and concluding with the development, starting in the 1950s, of the thriving contemporary art scene we know today.  GIFTED examines the ways in which the collection mirrored changing developments and tastes in art and society in Los Angeles and Southern California.

Gardena High School established the collection when plein-air (outdoor) painting flourished in Southern California, setting the tone for the high school’s collecting emphasis during the following decades.  The high level of sophistication demonstrated by the students’ choices was the result of the artistic discourse and collaboration nurtured by the school.

Most of the works selected by the students prior to World War II were plein-air landscapes, evidence of regional artists’ fascination with the area’s natural beauty and art emphasis popular at the time.  The GHSAC includes works by prominent painters of California Impressionism, including William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Hanson Duvall Puthuff, Jean Mannheim, Franz Bischoff, Maurice Braun, Alson Clark and Marion Wachtel, among others. Later works by Hugo Ballin, Loren Barton, Maynard Dixon, Emil Kosa and Francis de Erdely reflect the influence of the American Scene movement popular during the Depression era, as well as the dramatic shifts in style characteristic of the art of the post-war period.

The painting featured in this issue is by Maynard Dixon, who had a long career as a highly successful painter of the American West and its inhabitants.  By the 1920s and 1930s, he had developed a stark, rhythmic approach to painting the desert, exposing its architectural forms and abstract angles.  This painting of two Native Americans—perhaps a father and son—looking out over a vast landscape has been pared back to its barest elements, emphasizing the stoic dignity of the subjects and giving the whole image a sense of the eternal.

The exhibition GIFTED: Collecting the Art of California at Gardena High School, 1919-1956 is organized by the GHS Art Collection, Inc. in association with the Gardena High School Student Body and curated by Susan M. Anderson.  It will travel to the Fresno Art Museum from January 24 to June 28, 2020, and the Oceanside Museum of Art from July 18 to November 29, 2020, following its showing at the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University now through October 19, 2019.

The Hilbert Museum of California Art is located at 167 North Atchison St., Orange.  Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 am to 5 pm.  Free admission and parking in front of the museum with a permit obtained inside, or in the new City of Orange parking structure one block east at 130 North Lemon St. 714-516-5880,

Published in the Jul / Aug 19 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Article Written by Mary Platt, Photos provided by GHS Art Collection

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