“Where do museums come from?” I imagine a little girl, eyes shining, asking me this question as I stand in front of the Hilbert Museum of California Art, quite possibly California’s newest institution. Founded by real estate magnate Mark Hilbert and his wife Janet and opened to the public in February of 2016, it’s affiliated with Chapman University, a smallish Christian school in the heart of Orange County. In 2014, the Hilberts decided to donate art and seed money (three million dollars) for a building. The museum’s current location (seen below) was, until recently, a storage facility; it was refitted at lightning speed to serve as 6,000 square feet of exhibition space until a permanent home, in a former citrus packing plant a few blocks away, is ready. (See artist's rendering above. When complete, the renovations will include a library, a café, and other amenities.)
The Hilberts began collecting ‘California Scene’ painting some 25 years ago, eventually acquiring over a thousand watercolors and oils that date mostly from the 1930s through the ‘70s. These are not gauzy post-Impressionist landscapes or (merely) pretty pictures, but visual records of social history: Breughelesque narrative featuring cars and buildings, factories and freeways; seedy city streets and homely country roads.
Even when the landscape is the primary feature, people are never far away.
Artists in this genre, many of whom achieved national recognition, were deft storytellers. This narrative quality is what first drew Hilbert and his wife to this kind of art and has sustained their interest ever since. (As an added bonus, these paintings were largely undervalued when they started collecting, making this sizeable collection a smart buy.)
The current shows on view are “Golden Dreams: The Immigrant Vision of California;” “Out of the West,” and “Disney Production Art.” Each presents selections from the nearly 250 works the Hilberts have given so far. (Eventually, they plan to donate the bulk of the collection.)
To be honest, it’s hard to tell where one
show ends and another begins, with the exception of the Disney art. The coherence of the collection as a whole is, after all, its defining characteristic.
Why were so many artists living in California, at a time when there were far fewer people here than there are today? The movies, of course. During the Depression, the Disney studios were a magnet, offering good jobs working on various aspects of design and production. Many of the painters in the Hilbert collection were trained at the Chouinard Art Institute, the school that served as a breeding ground for Disney animators and later became the Disney-supported California Institute of the Arts.
Phil Dike, for example, was hired to coordinate the color throughout Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Disney’s first feature length animated film.
Mary Blair had many different roles at Disney—as an animator, a concept designer for attractions at Disneyland, and a color designer.
These two and many other artists in the Hilbert’s collection were Disney employees, working on their own stuff on weekends. Some are big names in ‘California art,’ according to the museum’s website—including Dike, Rex Brandt and Millard Sheets. There are some women as well, among them Joan Irving, Blair and Ruth Peabody.
Many artists—Sheets, Emil Kosa Jr., Milford Zornes, and Irving -- were also members of the California Watercolor Society, and the skillfulness of their work in that (all but lost) medium is marvelous. Oils, though less plentiful, are also executed with brio and great brushwork.
These include Edouard Vysekal’s Intramovement, showing the busy interior of the Boos Brothers Cafeteria in downtown LA. Painted in 1918, it’s one of the oldest pictures in the collection.
A railroad station by Millard Sheets (seen in the photo of the interior of the current galleries, above),said to be the Hilbert’s best-known work, is certainly striking in an Edward Hopper sort of way. But I liked Sheets’ strange, moody composition Abandoned even more.
A prodigy who won prizes for his watercolors while still in his teens, Sheets later became a hugely influential teacher at schools throughout southern California and an important designer of murals, mosaics and even buildings all over the country.
The Scottish Rite Temple in LA that presently houses the Marciano Art Collection is graced by several Sheets murals, inside and out.
And a San Francisco Public Library Branch hosts this astonishing mural, dated 1977.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the Hilberts. Interestingly, neither of them attended Chapman, but it seemed like the right fit when they began thinking about what to do with their collection. And, really, they were right. By creating their own institution, they are able to make their paintings remain the primary focus, instead of running the risk of them getting relegated to the basement in a larger museum, as Hilbert himself put it in one interview. Chapman is enthusiastic, grateful, and will cherish and support this addition to their campus. And thus, to the end of my story. I lean down and whisper in the little girl’s ear. “Museums come from rich people, honey. Aren’t we lucky?”