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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Expanded Hilbert Museum of California Art Prepares Its Unveiling

Orange County locals Mark and Janet Hilbert have spent decades assembling thousands of pieces of California-focused art in a variety of styles and mediums—including oils, watercolors, prints, illustrations, movie production art and more—and over that time have amassed what they believe to be the world’s largest collection of California narrative art.

This month, the couple is unveiling their own Golden State masterpiece: the new, expanded Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University.

The project, a $12 million undertaking largely financed by the couple, triples the size of the Hilbert Museum to more than 22,000 square feet.

The multiyear project adds a second building to the overhauled museum, which first opened in 2016.

Along with 26 galleries for rotating displays, the expanded facility along North Atchison Street, across the street from the city’s train station, also includes a café, community room for educational events, research library and outdoor areas.

A VIP grand opening event for the new museum is set for Feb. 22, with its doors opening to the public on Feb. 23.

The new museum promises to become one of the biggest draws to Old Towne Orange; Mark Hilbert is optimistic that the facility, which is free to attend, could attract close to 100,000 visitors a year. In its prior iteration, it drew about 30,000 guests annually.

$25M Collection

The Hilberts began collecting art in the early 1990s, when looking to decorate a home in Palm Springs.

Their focus has been on California Scene paintings, which are narrative scenes of California life, starting in the 1930s.

Over the years, the couple’s pieces have hung in their family home in Newport Beach, been displayed in other museums as far away as Germany, or been kept in storage for safe keeping.

Mark Hilbert, who parlayed income from an air-conditioning product he created into a sizable commercial real estate portfolio, including many properties in Orange County, estimates their entire collection to now be valued around $25 million.

In 2014, the Hilberts chose Chapman to be the site of a museum, so that others could see their art.

“At some point I thought, if it seems to interest a lot of people, maybe it would be appropriate for us to open an art museum so that we can share it with the public,” Mark Hilbert told the Business Journal during a tour of the new grounds last week.

“I wanted to do something that would give back to the community,” Hilbert said.

The two initially donated about $10 million to the university, a gift which included art valued at more than $7 million and $3 million toward the initial home of the museum.

First Displays

Visitors to the museum are encouraged to reserve spots online ahead of time, to carve out an hour or more to be able to see everything on display, and to visit frequently, as exhibits will change often over the course of a year.

“What you’re seeing in the museum is about 5% of the collection at any one time,” Museum Director Mary Platt said.

The expanded museum includes art from the Hilbert collection and others; the expansion also allows room for new galleries such as Indigenous American art to be displayed for the first time.

Mark Hilbert says the museum’s curators have well over 100 years’ experience, far and away the most of any local art museum.

The museum is reopening with nine exhibits, including over 40 original paintings by Millard Sheets, curated by Jean Stern (see story, this page).

As one of the largest private owners of Disney animation prints, museum director Platt has curated “Mary Blair’s Wonderland: Imagining Disney’s Alice” from pieces in the Hilbert collection.

The museum is also featuring an exhibition on Norman Rockwell with art from both the Hilberts and some on loan from the Bank of America collection.

Vintage radios that Mark Hilbert started collecting during his childhood will also be on display, curated by Clark Silva, along with a selection of Navajo weavings from when he first started gathering art.

From Collectors to Curators

Both Mark and Janet Hilbert grew up in Southern California.

Janet attended the University of Southern California and served as a professor of business at Santa Ana College for 36 years. Mark founded Newport Beach-based Hilbert Property Management in 1988 after spending two decades buying local residential properties during his time as an air conditioning engineer.

The Hilberts, before their wedding in 1994, bought their first painting together while trying to furnish a new house in Palm Springs.

The California Scene painting they found in a consignment shop set them on a path of art education across 250 museums in Europe, and has led them to building their current catalog, topping several thousand items.

Traveling across the country and to Europe, their collection expanded from watercolor landscapes to prints and portraits and eventually included animation and movie production art, along with other American illustrations.

With no end in sight, Mark said the couple will continue to search for new pieces, whether visiting art shows or auctions on the internet, and utilizing 30 years worth of connections.

It’s a busy period for new art museums in Orange County, with Costa Mesa’s $94 million Orange County Museum of Art opening in late 2022, and plans in the works for the Jack and Shanaz Langson Institute and Museum of California Art at the University of California, Irvine.

Those, and other established locations like the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, are creating synergy in the community, not competition, officials said.

“We’re all working towards the same goal of making Orange County an arts hub,” Museum Director Mary Platt said.

The Million-Dollar Entrance

The most expensive, and arguably most striking, piece of art at the new Hilbert Museum of California Art isn’t inside the museum.

The entrance to the museum is highlighted by a 1969 mosaic from famed California artist Millard Sheets. “Perhaps the most celebrated of California 20th-century artists,” Sheets, the museum says, “could do it all: painter, muralist, mosaicist, designer and teacher.”

Weighing 12 tons, Sheets’ 40 feet x 16 feet “Pleasures Along the Beach” was once slated to be taken down from the former Home Savings of America building in Santa Monica and destroyed.

Mark and Janet Hilbert jumped in to acquire the piece, after seeing a watercolor image of the mosaic at an art show.

The owner of the building, Wilshire-26 LLC, agreed to donate the mosaic, made up of thousands of tiny pieces of Murano glass from Italy.

It became the centerpiece of the rest of the museum’s redesign process, which took about two years of Zoom meetings between the museum team and architecture firm Johnston Marklee Associates.

The museum spent $1 million to install the Millard Sheets mosaic, which now hangs on the west side of the structure, facing the passengers exiting the Orange train station.

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