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The Hilbert Museum of California Art

Mark and Janet Hilbert began collecting art to cover blank walls. Now their collection populates a museum.

Millard Sheets, “San Dimas Train Station,” 1933, watercolor, 15 x 22 inches.

Consider the dilemma of two art collectors who have quietly cultivated their passion over the last two decades: Their interest is piqued after a chance encounter with a handful of watercolors in a consignment shop. They buy one and, on their next visit, another, fueling their infatuation with California Scene painting. Soon they are immersed in a world of discovery, appraisal and acquisition.

As the years go by, they discover their enthusiasm for this style of painting – distinguished by scenes of everyday life in early- and mid-20th century California – is shared by others. Museums request loans for special exhibits, and their home becomes a salon of sorts – collectors and friends come for dinner and spontaneous tours break out. Art hangs in every room, including the pantry. There are conversations about, and – ultimately, the announcement of – a university-based museum to showcase their collection.

Then, one day, men come to their home and remove several paintings – familiar works that are like old friends, each with a rich back story – that are destined for the new art museum.
Do they experience a  twinge of regret at the sight  of empty spaces? If so, the moment is brief. Janet and Mark Hilbert, collectors of California Scene artists such as Millard Sheets and Rex Brandt, Phil Dike and Emil Kosa Jr. are focused on something other than what might be hanging on their living room wall. They’re talking legacy.

“For the next 100 years,” Mark says. “People will be able to see examples of life in California as it was in the 20th century.”

In fact, they can see it right now. The Hilbert Museum of California Art, located on Chapman University’s west campus across from the train station in the city of Orange, opened to the public on Feb. 26, made possible by a $10 million gift ($7 million in art and $3 million for bricks and mortar) from the Hilberts.

As for those empty walls in the Hilbert’s Newport Coast home, they are quickly filled with other works from their collection. As he stops in the living room, Mark notes one of the “replacement” paintings, a work by Victor Mikhail Arnautoff. In the 1930s, Mark explains, the artist was one of several selected to work on the murals in San Francisco’s Coit Tower.
It feels as though almost everything in the Hilberts' home has a story – a lampshade decorated with early California architectural renderings; a green Jardiniere on the dining room table, a vintage radio in the family room – and Mark can recite each one. When asked if he relies on assistants – professional or otherwise – in the acquisitions process, he smiles and says: “Where’s the fun in that?”

Art is a priority in the Hilbert home and has been since the day they moved in 16 years ago. “The first thing Mark did was start hanging the paintings,” Janet says. They had to go up “for this to feel like a home.”

But even though the house is full of treasures, it feels like a home, not a gallery. Children’s toys are tucked discreetly under a table in the family room; family photos mingle with paintings and other collectibles. A small dog named Teddy Bear with movie-star looks makes an appearance late in the afternoon, racing  through rooms that are furnished with antiques and Spanish revival pieces from the early 20th century.

The Hilberts, who have three children between them and six grandchildren, met in 1991. (“My wife was rollerblading down the strand in Newport,” Mark says. “She was with someone I knew, and I just kind of pulled over.”) He’d been an engineer and an inventor and had established a successful residential property business based in Newport Beach. She was a professor of business at Santa Ana College for 35 years. They married in 1994 and purchased a home in Palm Springs, an experience, Mark says, that left them with an “empty wallet” – and “empty walls.” A trip to a consignment shop, he says, led to the purchase of their first California Scene painting.

They started to research the style and the artists associated with it and encountered the work of Gordon McClelland, who has written several books on the topic and was, Mark says, “very involved with the museum.” McClelland, Mark adds, “curated the current show, ‘Narrative Visions: 20th Century California Art from the Hilbert Collection.’”

The Hilberts were eager to continue their art education, traveling to Europe on a regular basis “to develop our eye,” says Mark. They’ve made 25 trips, Janet says and the trips to look at art continue (“We were just in Mexico City,” Janet says, beaming, “We saw everything.”). But their first love remains California Scene painting.

Walking through the new museum a few days before its official opening, Mark is part college professor, part preacher, touching on 16th century Dutch painting, Impressionism and the artists who flocked to Hollywood studios in the middle of the 20th century. He can list a number of painters once associated with the Chouinard Art Institute and then turn the conversation to a work that depicts U.S. naval strength during World War II.

But Mark understands that his evangelism is not for everyone, and his responses to queries that juxtapose California Scene painting to other, more recent and more celebrated art movements are thoughtful – and careful.

He prefers art that is representational – “you can look at them and know exactly what you are looking at” – art that appeals to “90 percent of the people,” he says, adding, “If the others prefer something else, that’s fine.” The Hilbert artworks were chosen “because they are beautiful and because there was a story to be told.”

Although California Scene painters have been the focus of several exhibits throughout the years, the Hilberts and their new museum have brought the artworks “way up to the forefront,” says Janet Blake, curator of historical art at the Laguna Art Museum.  Part of the American Scene movement, the Golden State artists attracted attention in part because of their “unique concentration on watercolor as their method.”

James Doti, president of Chapman University, acknowledges that in the past, California Scene painters were “often ignored in favor of the Jackson Pollocks and Andy Warhols of this world.” But recently, “there’s been a renaissance” of interest in the movement. The new museum, he says, will contribute to that renaissance. “To people who don’t know about (the movement) it’s been a revelation. They seem to be really interested in these paintings (that focus on) humanity.”

Do the Hilberts have favorites?

“Definitely,” Janet says. “Phil Dike. Millard Sheets. Emil Kosa Jr. Milford Zornes.” But they speak of each painting with the same degree of enthusiasm and are equally as passionate about the pottery and the radio collections in their home.

“I grew up in Pasadena,” Mark says, “and my first job was cleaning floors and toilets, emptying waste paper baskets and putting radios on the shelves and putting price tags on them … I started to collect these radios because I remembered seeing them for sale.” He eagerly acknowledges a fascination with their design. “At that time, there were about 10,000 radio manufacturers and they were competing with each other and hiring the best designers in the world.”

As Mark and Janet chat about radios – and pottery and painting and collecting in general – they sit next to one another on a couch in the family room. They are an experienced team when it comes to sharing the details of the things they love, taking turns as they speak, sometimes completing one another’s sentences. They are quick to compliment one another. Mark is a “genius” when it comes to his eye for art. Janet is a “great cook” with a “big heart.”
The Hilberts have visited many of the places depicted in works in their collection, sometimes with McClelland, “who knew where the places were because he interviewed the artists” for the many books he has written on California Scene painters, Mark says. They want to know the stories behind each piece and artist in their collection of about 1,000 watercolors, oil paintings, and lithographs. And they like to imagine the stories of the people depicted on paper and canvas.

“What’s going on in this fellow’s head,” Mark asks, gesturing toward Sheets’ “San Dimas Train Station,” part of the current exhibit at the new museum. “He’s reading a newspaper. I wonder what was in the news on that day.” If you are asking those type of questions, you’ve made the connection.”

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