A Passion for Art 10

Mark and Janet Hilbert are establishing an art museum at Chapman University featuring a large segment of their extensive California Scene art collection


Janet and Mark Hilbert became acquainted with California Scene paintings quite by accident. Before they were married, they visited a consignment shop to furnish their first home and saw some watercolors that they really liked.

“We liked them because of their spontaneity,” Mark says.

When they went back to buy more, the owner told them the watercolors were highly undervalued, and that was a tip-off to them.

“The consignment store owner gave us a book called California Style by Gordon McClelland, and our journey collecting California Scene art began,” Janet says.

The journey has brought this art-loving couple to collect more than 900 California Scene paintings, with them donating a large segment of those works of art valued at nearly $10 million to Chapman University. They have also contributed $3 million to build a new museum to display the art and to provide a research library.

“It will be the first institution dedicated exclusively to California Scene art,” Mark says. “It’s kind of an overlooked group of artists.”

The Hilberts say the art depicts everyday life in California in the middle of the 20th century. From 1930 to the present, these artists painted mainly in watercolor and depicted people and manmade objects, such as cars, piers, factories, freeways, etc., in their works, thus the name California Scene painters. Their work was in direct contrast to the California impressionist painters, who painted scenes of unpopulated coastlines and mountains, with nary a human being in sight.

“Our paintings all have a narrative or story,” Mark says. “We buy art that touches our soul and moves us. Some of the works were painted in the Great Depression, and you feel it.”

The Hilberts say the most popular work in the collection is Millard Sheets’ “San Dimas Train Station,” a 1933 watercolor that the Hilberts consider the signature work of their collection because of its powerfully evocative image and the fact that Sheets was a leading artist in the movement.

Mark shares that many of the artists were classically trained at the Chouinard Art Institute (later the California Institute of the Arts) and were employed by the movie studios in the Los Angeles area, especially Walt Disney Studios, where they painted studio backdrops and worked in animated films.

“Emil Kosa, Jr., was an example of an artist who worked in the studio system,” Mark says. “He won an Academy Award in art direction for his work on Anthony & Cleopatra.”

Top California Scene artist Phil Dike was hired by Disney in the mid-1930s, according to Mark, to coordinate the color throughout Disney’s first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

“It was the first time technicolor was used in a feature-length film, and Phil was in charge,” Mark says.

The Chapman connection grew from a walk around campus with Mark’s nephew, who was a student there. Several years later, when the Hilberts realized after visiting the major art museums in Europe that their paintings could stand up to much of what they saw, they started thinking about creating their own museum. They remembered Chapman’s impressive public art and made a call.

“I called Chapman Vice President Sheryl Bourgeois,” Mark says, “and left a message on her voice machine, ‘Every great university needs a great art museum.’”

A few days later, the Hilberts received a call from Chapman University President Jim Doti, an art collector himself who was much taken with California Scene art.

“Jim was a real visionary to make this happen,” Mark says. “We didn’t want to donate our paintings to a museum that would put them in the basement and forget about them.”

By the time Doti met with them, he had figured out where the museum would be located on campus–the renovated space of what used to be the Villa Park Orchards Packing House.

Doti’s enthusiasm for the project showed at the gift’s formal announcement last November, where he spoke about the works:

“A collection of California Scene paintings that encompasses most of the 20th century will help enrich our academic programs by bringing to life the economic, social and political forces that shaped our state and its history.”

Janet said their collaboration with the university has been a good one.

“Chapman has welcomed us with open arms, and it’s a good marriage,” she explains.

In the meantime, the public will have an opportunity to view a selection of watercolors from the collection, titled “Changing California,” at Chapman in its Leatherby Libraries through August 10. The collection is curated by Chapman’s Director of Communications and Media Relations Mary Platt, who is also an art historian.

“The entire sweep of paintings will show the state’s development from farming to car and surfing culture to the entertainment and leisure juggernaut it is today,” Platt says.

When the Hilbert Museum of California Art, as it will be called, opens this fall and later moves to its renovated citrus packing house digs, it will feature more than California Scene paintings. It will also display California representational art of all eras, including contemporary works from recent years.

To say this couple loves their “babies” is an understatement. Their art-filled home in Newport Coast is a respite.

“I love being in my home,” Janet says. “Every room I walk into makes me happy.”

But, don’t think for a minute the Hilberts are finished collecting.

As Mark shares, “I bought a painting yesterday, and the paint was still wet!”

“We find that people are drawn to these paintings,” Mark says. “They relate from the heart. The artists left behind a treasure trove of paintings through their families and only in the last 25 years are they beginning to surface.”