• Hilbert Museum illuminates a golden period in California Art

    Los Angeles Times, by Richard Chang.

    A former industrial building and storage facility used by Chapman University has been transformed into a 6,000-square-foot museum — the nation's only institution dedicated to the display of California Scene painting and California representational art.

    Nearly 2,000 people attended the Feb. 26 and 27 grand opening in Old Towne Orange of the Hilbert Museum of California Art, the latest addition to Chapman University and to the Orange County arts scene.

    Chapman's first art museum came together relatively quickly. The private university and Newport Beach couple Mark and Jan Hilbert announced its formation in November 2014, along with a $3-million gift to Chapman and the donation of more than 240 works.

    The free museum on Atchison Street, across from the Orange Metrolink train station, is actually a temporary facility. The permanent home will be an 18,000-square-foot former packing plant a few blocks away, scheduled to open with a library in 2019.

    The Hilberts started their California art collection more than 25 years ago, when they bought a house in Palm Springs and were looking for an affordable way to decorate it.

    Over time, the collection grew to more than 1,000 pieces. The value of the Hilberts' art donation to Chapman is estimated at more than $7 million, possibly as high as $10 million.

    "It's a way of giving back to the community," said Mark Hilbert, 71, managing partner of a Newport Beach-based property management firm. "We've put together a collection which we believe will interest a large majority of people. Our hope is these paintings will connect with people, and people will start bringing their friends in."

    Hilbert added that it was also important to give the paintings to an educational institution, so students, faculty and the public can learn about them and more research can be done.

    During the Feb. 27 grand opening events, live music echoed inside the galleries, as 1,200 attendees viewed the space and munched on hors d'oeuvres from Ruby's Streamliner Café, located across the street. It was a festive gathering, catering to the local arts community, and a rare, public celebration of California painting.

    About half as many people attended the opening the day before, according to Chapman spokeswoman Mary Platt. That Friday afternoon event was geared primarily toward the Chapman University community. Both days' events were open to the public as well.

    "It was way more popular than even we had thought it would be," Platt said of opening weekend.

    "It was a real party for art lovers," said Gordon McClelland, a writer, art historian and collector who curated the Hilbert Museum's inaugural exhibition, "Narrative Visions: 20th Century California Art from the Hilbert Collection."

    Major and overlooked artists

    The Hilbert Collection comprises a who's who of 20th century California masters. Notable artists include Rex Brandt, Phil Dike, Millard Sheets, Emil Kosa Jr., Roger Kuntz, Joan Irving, Barse Miller, George James, Dong Kingman, Jack Laycox, Ruth Peabody, Fletcher Martin, Phil Paradise and Milford Zornes.

    The collection is particularly strong in California Scene watercolor and oil paintings from the 1930s to the 1970s. In contrast to the California Impressionist movement that preceded it, artists from this era focused on glimpses of everyday life in the Golden State. Cars, buildings, freeways, factories, electric poles, ships and working class people frequently populate these paintings.

    Works that have been widely exhibited and critically recognized include Kosa's oil "Near Modesto" (1940), Sheets' watercolor "San Dimas Train Station" (1953) and Miller's oil "If I Had the Wings of an Angel" (1937), depicting a merry-go-round in Los Angeles' Lincoln Park at the height of the Depression.

    Many of the artists, such as Dike, Preston Blair, Francis Caldwell and Joseph Weisman, worked as illustrators for Walt Disney Studios or other Hollywood studios. So they had achieved a certain level of success as professional artists, as well as a high skill level at drawing and illustrating.

    Others are not as well known and have not been widely exhibited.

    "That's what we're trying to do here," Hilbert said. "This was an overlooked group of artists, and the reason for the museum is to bring attention to them."

    Engineer with a collector's eye

    Hilbert was born in Brooklyn but raised in Pasadena. He graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with an engineering degree, and actually spent the first part of his career working as an engineer for the Trane heating, air-conditioning and energy company, based in Wisconsin.

    He started collecting American Indian and New Mexican pottery and art. But he soon discovered that many New Mexican artists, particularly from the Taos Society, were beyond his reach financially. Plus, he realized that generations of California artists had made outstanding pictures and often had a story to tell.

    "We don't buy names; we try to buy the best images," he said, noting the role his wife plays in the acquisitions. "Images that on the whole tell a story. Our artwork is a very narrative collection. It's a collection that tells a story of California and its people."

    Hilbert has also relied on the knowledge and expertise of McClelland, who has studied 20th century California painting closely and written several books on the subject. McClelland even met with and interviewed many of the featured artists. Most are no longer alive.

    "My mother was an artist, and she took me to all these shows. I used to go to Rex Brandt shows when I was 7 years old," said McClelland, 65, a San Clemente resident. "This one gallery in Anaheim used to represent him and Phil Dike. I've been looking at Rex Brandt paintings ever since I was a kid."

    Out of 247 donated works, 104 are currently on view in "Narrative Visions." Over time, the Hilberts plan to give their entire 1,000-work collection to Chapman and the museum.

    "I think this is going to be a huge resource for our students and our scholars," said Daniele Struppa, chancellor and president-designate of Chapman University. Struppa is scheduled to become president on Sept. 1.

    "Every one of these paintings reflects a moment in the history of California. Our hope is we're going to have the permanent collection on view, but also rotating exhibits, and some new scholarly work may emerge from that."

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