Mark Hilbert
Mark Hilbert

Mark Hilbert

Since he was a boy growing up in Pasadena in the 1950s, history has fascinated Mark Hilbert.  It is therefore fitting that he and his wife, Janet, founded the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University.

The one-of-a-kind museum, which opened in 2016, features more than 5,000 pieces of art from the 1900s to the present-day.  Focused on visual storytelling, the works illustrate California’s historical and social history, depicting everyday life in the state.  The museum is the only one in the world committed to displaying the colorful, iconic past of the Golden State through the artwork of leading California Scene artists and Hollywood studio artists and animators.

Among the museum’s most celebrated works are those by well-known artists such as Millard Sheets, Emil Kosa Jr., Mary Blair, Phil Dike, Milford Zornes and Rex Brandt.  The museum also features one of the largest private collections of Disney and other animation art, works by American illustrators, Native American arts and American design, including a vintage radio collection.

Journey to the Hilbert Museum

The Hilberts happened to stumble upon their first California Scene Painting in 1993 when they bought a house in Palm Springs shortly after they married.  “We decided to shop consignment stores to furnish our home.  That’s where we found a small watercolor landscape,” says Hilbert.

Not long after, he discovered another California Scene Painting.  “When Janet saw that second painting, she said, ‘That’s a nice landscape but it would be more interesting if there were people,’” says Hilbert.  “I thought, wow, you’re right.  Today, 95 percent of the collection features people or evidence of people, because their presence tells a story.”

At the time of the first painting purchase, the Hilberts discovered the book, The California Style: California Watercolor Artists 1925-1955, by Orange native and art curator Gordon McClelland.  The book educated them about the California Scene Painting genre, which at the time was in danger of becoming lost in obscurity.  Over the years, the Hilberts have built the collection thanks to acquisitions from California Scene painter descendants and other private parties.

“From the very beginning, it was apparent that Mark and Jan had a natural gift of intuitive discernment when it came to selecting art to acquire,” says McClelland, an independent curator since 1972 for the Hilbert and other museums and art centers in America and Europe.  He has authored or coauthored 22 books focused on the connection between Social Culture and Visual Art.

“After the Hilbert collection became a reality, Mark engaged with museums all over California and worked diligently to set up exhibitions of California Scene Paintings,” continues McClelland.  “He then helped facilitate catalog and book publications to document many of the exhibitions that followed.  In my opinion, no one has done more or worked harder to promote California Scene Paintings than Mark Hilbert.  Everyone involved in that movement, especially the artists and their families, are truly appreciative of what he has done and continues to do.”

Collection Beginnings

Back in the 1990s when Hilbert began collecting California Scene Paintings, starting a museum wasn’t on his radar.  At the time, he oversaw his real estate investment company.  Prior to that, he worked for two decades as an air-conditioning engineer for Trane in their commercial division after graduating with a degree in engineering from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.  He has since handed the reins of his real estate company to his son and now dedicates his time to the Hilbert Museum.

Being industrious is something Hilbert learned from a young age.  “My parents owned an appliance store in Pasadena where I worked starting at 12 cleaning and emptying the trash,” he says.  “When I got older, I made deliveries and installed appliances.  That experience, along with the influence of my parents, taught me a strong work ethic.”

It was about seven years into collecting California Scene Paintings in the early 2000s that the Hilberts held a show and published a catalog of featured paintings.  “After that show, we began getting requests from museums to loan out paintings, which we have done to places like The Getty and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art,” he says.

Hilbert had the idea to start his own museum about 12 years ago after visiting an exhibit at a museum in Los Angeles from which he came away dissatisfied.  “On my way home, I thought I could do better by providing an art experience that would leave people with a smile on their face.”

He then spent some time determining where the museum would be located—eventually deciding on Chapman University.  “I wanted to be associated with a high-caliber, private institution that would provide a personalized experience with less politics,” says Hilbert, who notes that his and Janet’s time as donors and trustees “has been wonderful.”

When Hilbert approached then President Jim Doti in 2014 about the museum, “He was immediately open to the idea,” says Hilbert.  “There happened to be a California Scene Painting show in Pasadena at the time.  Jim and Sheryl Bourgeois, then Chapman’s Executive Vice President of Advancement, went to the show and were pleased with what they saw.”

The museum initially opened in a 7,500 square-foot building across from the Orange Train Station where it stayed for eight years before recently moving to its permanent home this past February.

The Hilbert’s New Home

Three years in the making, the new museum’s square footage increased to 22,000.  The facility has 26 galleries for rotating displays, as well as a café, community room, research library and courtyard with native gardens.  The facility is composed of two buildings united by an open-air structure featuring a 40’ x 16’ glass tile mosaic created in 1969 by acclaimed California Scene painter Millard Sheets.

Former Director of the Irvine Museum, Jean Stern, has known Hilbert for 20 years.  “From the first time we talked, Mark impressed me with his knowledge and most importantly his dedication to art,” says Stern.  “He has a very rare quality: he follows through on his word.  Mark has done a lot for the public and the art community.  Because of that, I have worked with him when he asked, including writing both of his Hilbert Collection books.”

For Hilbert, collecting and sharing art through the Hilbert Museum has been an enjoyable, energizing endeavor for him and Janet.  “When we first started collecting, a smart gallerist said to train our eye for quality, so we have gone to Europe 30 times over the years to study art,” he says.  “This allowed us to create a high-quality, comprehensive collection and provide visitors with a unique museum experience.”

According to Hilbert, running a successful museum wouldn’t be possible without the support of Chapman University and those who work to make the museum excellent.  This includes Museum Director Mary Platt, Operations and Events Manager Julie Gorzik, Museum Registrar Emily Valdez and Docent Coordinator Jill Keefe.

“I’m proud of what we’ve created.  I enjoy talking to people as they leave the museum and hearing about their wonderful experiences,” says Hilbert.  “It’s fulfilling to know that I met my goal of providing a positive, upbeat experience for people to learn about California history through beautiful artwork.”

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The Hilbert Museum of California Art is located at 167 North Atchison St.  Open Tue - Sat from 10 am to 5 pm.  Admission and parking are free.  Registration online is recommended at, though walk-ins are welcomed.

Article Published in the
May / Jun 24 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review
Written by Julie Bawden-Davis Photo by Mike Escobedo
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