Museum Founders Mark and Jan Hilbert Display Treasured California Scene Paintings
written by Liz Goldner
While art lovers and collectors have long admired California Scene Painting, few are as passionate about the movement as Mark and Jan Hilbert. Here is their inspiring story.
When the Hilberts purchased a 1950s California-style watercolor in 1992, they didn’t imagine that it would be the first step in the creation of a major museum. Yet the landscape sparked their interest in the genre, and they began studying its origins and influences, and meeting with art historians. With their newly found passion, they bought additional works. Then one day Jan looked at their small collection and remarked, “I’d like to see people in the paintings because it makes them more interesting.” The couple’s acquisitions soon segued to narrative art—in other words, art that tells stories. And that is the type of paintings and illustrations that they now display in their Newport Coast home and in the recently opened Hilbert Museum of California Art in Orange.
One of the Hilberts’ most important paintings is Millard Sheets’ San Dimas Train Station (1933). This nostalgic watercolor, which depicts a lonely 19th century wooden train depot at night, includes a seated man reading a newspaper under the depot’s light and a second man standing near the rails beneath the beam of another light. Another favorite work is Fletcher Martin’s 1938 painting Bucolic. Featuring a carefully drawn couple seated on the ground in a rural setting, it evokes the tradition of Mexican muralism.
During their early years of collecting, the Hilberts enhanced their understanding of fine art by visiting European museums (as they continue to do), perusing the works of old masters and training their eyes and hearts to understand the importance of color, line, composition and subject matter. After numerous trips abroad, they concluded that California paintings from the 1920s to the 1970s compared favorably with the works they were seeing on the Continent. And as their knowledge increased, they acquired more and more California-style works, today numbering more than fifteen hundred exquisite oils, watercolors and gouaches. These landscapes, cityscapes and rural scenes often include people at work and at play.
After the Hilberts had been purchasing for several years, their collection began to attract the attention of local and national museums hoping to borrow their treasured California Scene Paintings. Receiving such positive feedback, they naturally developed the desire to share their collection with the public by establishing a museum of their own.
In 2014, the Hilberts approached Chapman University and proposed that they donate a number of their paintings for a museum, along with money to build it on the university’s campus in Orange. The Chapman board enthusiastically agreed, and the Hilbert Museum opened in February 2016 with the exhibition “Narrative Visions: 20th Century California Art.” Featuring 106 paintings telling stories and capturing scenes of everyday life during the mid-twentieth century, the exhibition attracted hundreds of visitors each week before closing in early 2017 to make room for three new shows.
When the narrative paintings were returned to the couple’s Italian-style home, they were excited to re-hang them. One of the paintings that they welcomed back is Robert Frame’s large oil from the 1960s, Window View Santa Barbara, CA, which depicts a breakfast table under a casement window looking out to a large yard with houses beyond and the ocean in the distance. Other favorites include Cornelis Botke’s undated Potter Schoolhouse, St. Teresa of Avila Church, Bodega Bay, a depiction of an old-fashioned country school and church, with children playing outside, and Rex Brandt’s 1960 Wilshire Blvd., a view of downtown L.A. during rush hour with the sun fading in the west. Another cherished work is Chinese-American artist Dong Kingman’s Strolling down Washington Street, a fanciful scene of men strolling down a Chinatown street from 1946. Another Millard Sheets work, California Cotton Pickers (1929), features a group of the cotton pickers who had been bused to Southern California from Texas.
In addition to their paintings, the Hilberts display Pueblo Indian ollas (earthenware jars) from New Mexico and Arizona in Hopi, Acoma, Zia and Mariposa styles. They also own a large collection of rare Navajo blankets from the 1880s to the 1930s, neatly folded in a painted folk-art cabinet. Three of their prized objects are varguenos—high desks with multiple drawers that tax agents hauled around with them as they collected people’s money. One large wooden example is from 17th century Spain, while a smaller silver one comes from 18th century Peru. The couple also own a wooden Spanish Revival vargueno made in California in the 1920s.
The Hilberts’ home tour concludes with displays of dozens of vintage radios from the 1930s. These small, mostly plastic models in a variety of colors evoke stories from our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ day about broadcasts during the Great Depression—broadcasts that the California Scene Painters probably also heard.
Mark and Jan Hilbert are proud to exhibit and promote mid-twentieth century California art, believing as they do in the significance of this seminal body of work. Another museum founder who championed American art was Duncan Phillips, whose Washington D.C. museum—the Phillips Collection—opened in 1921. “Not only does America inherit the arts of all nations and of all ages,” he once wrote with notable prescience, “but rich should be the harvesting and exquisite the flowering of the strong, sound and aspiring American spirit from the seeds of aesthetic purpose, now so wisely and so bountifully being sown in her native soil.”