Orange County’s Hilbert Museum To Triple In Size


The expanded museum in Old Towne Orange features California scene paintings and nine new exhibitions on view starting Friday.

Arts patron and museum founder Mark Hilbert stands in front of the newly expanded Hillbert Museum of California Art in Orange featuring the restored “Pleasures Along the Beach” mosaic by Millard Sheets on the museum’s west-facing facade in Orange on Friday, February 9, 2024. Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC

The chain-link fences and scaffolding have come down, the opening festivities are being prepared, and Orange County’s newest museum is about to enjoy its time in the spotlight.

After three years of construction – including a year’s delay due to the pandemic and supply chain issues – the Hilbert Museum of California Art is gearing up toward its grand reopening this Friday, Feb. 23.

The $12 million museum – a part of Chapman University – will expand from 7,500 to 22,000 square feet, nearly tripling its size. Galleries will grow from 12 to 26. And starting Friday, more than 300 works of art will be on view, ranging from California scene paintings from the Hilbert Collection to art deco radios to Navajo “eye dazzler” blankets.

Real estate investor Mark Hilbert of Newport Coast – along with his wife Janet – have been collecting California art for decades, specifically focusing on California scene paintings from the 1930s to the 1970s. He attributed his penchant for California scene painting – sometimes called narrative art – to its relatability.

Art currently featured at the Hilbert Museum in Orange.

PHOTO 1: “The Barefoot Sixties, Enrico’s San Francisco,” 1968 oil on canvas by Frank Ashley from The Hilbert Collection.

PHOTO 2: “Pied Piper,” 1945 oil on canvas by Dick Swift at the Hilbert Museum.

PHOTO 3: “Amateurs,” 1937 wood engraving on wove Japanese paper by Paul Landacre from the Toni and Bob Crisell Collection.

PHOTO 4: “Surfriders” by Rex Brandt, a 1959 oil on canvas from the Crain Collection.

PHOTO 5: “Picnic,” oil on canvas, c.1962-64 by Henrietta Berk from The Hilbert Collection.

PHOTO 6: “Bucolic,” 1938 oil on canvas by Fletcher Martin from The Hilbert Collection.

PHOTOS 7 and 8: Exhibition spaces in the original wing of the Hilbert Museum in Orange. Mark Hilbert is at right. Photos by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC

“Most of the people (visiting the museum) can relate to the work and live in California, so they could relate to the work easily,” he said during a recent interview. “At some point, I just became aware of the fact that many of the large museums in Southern California weren’t showing any California art anymore. They were showing other kinds of things.

“There’s an opportunity here for us to show and have a museum dedicated to California art, because it’s not being shown very much. I think there’s an interest in this.”

The newly expanded museum in Old Towne Orange – constructed by L.A.-based architectural firm Johnston Marklee – features two buildings, the original Hilbert Museum edifice and the former Partridge Dance Center; an open-air connective structure overhead; a café; a community room for classes, lectures and events; a research library; and an outdoor courtyard featuring terrazzo flooring and a native California live oak tree.

The Hilbert Museum will reopen with nine new exhibitions:

  • “Millard Sheets,” curated by Jean Stern and featuring 40 original paintings from the Hilbert Collection and other collections;

  • “A Matter of Style: Modernism in California Art,” curated by California art historian Gordon McClelland;

PHOTO 1: An exhibition of the works of artist Millard Sheets is featured in the original wing of the Hilbert Museum PHOTO 2: “At the Mission Gates’’ by Millard Sheets

PHOTO 3: A Matter of Style: Modernism in California Art is featured in the original space of the Hilbert Museum

PHOTO 4: Various historical postcards depicting Orange County scenes and landmarks from the Collection of Gordon McClelland. Photos by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC

  • “Emigdio Vasquez: Works from the Fred Ortiz Collection,” curated by Fred Ortiz;

  • “Same Place, Another Time: Views of Orange County,” curated by McClelland;

PHOTO 1: An exhibition of the works of Emigdio Vasquez at the Hilbert Museum also features some of his tools of the trade along with photos of the artist

PHOTO 2: “Sunday Night at Harmony Park,” 1999 oil on canvas by Emigdio Vasquez, courtesy of Higgy Vasquez and Katherine A. Bowers

PHOTO 3: “El Pachuco with Vintage Car,” 2003 oil on canvas by Emigdio Vasquez, courtesy of Higgy Vasquez and Katherine A. Bowers

PHOTO 4: View of part of the exhibition of paintings of Orange County, “Same Place, Another Time,” curated by Gordon McClelland. At right is Ben Abril’s “Old Irvine General Store,” undated, oil on canvas from The Hilbert Collection. Photos by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC

  • “Mary Blair’s Wonderland: Imagining Disney’s Alice,” curated by Hilbert Museum director Mary Platt;

  • “Norman Rockwell: Capturing the American Spirit,” curated by Platt;

PHOTO 1: “Alice with Cheshire Cat,” 1951, concept painting for the Disney feature film Alice in Wonderland, gouache on board, by Mary Blair from The Hilbert Collection

PHOTO 2: “Peter Pan at the Mermaid Lagoon,” 1953, concept painting for the Disney feature film Peter Pan, gouache, by Mary Blair from The Hilbert Collection

PHOTO 3: “Lubalin Redesigning the Post,” 1961 graphite, ink, gouache on paper by Norman Rockwell on loan from the Bank of America Collection. Photos by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC

  • “Eye Dazzlers: Marvels of Navajo Weaving from the Hilbert Collection,” curated by Platt;

  • “Art of the Airwaves: Radios from the Hilbert Collection,” curated by Clark Silva;

  • and “California Art from the Hilbert Permanent Collection, curated by McClelland.

PHOTO 1: Navajo weaving designs from The Hilbert Collection are highlighted in the Eye Dazzlers exhibition

PHOTO 2: Mark Hilbert, right, and his “Art of the Airwave” exhibition of vintage radios from the Hilbert Collection

PHOTO 3: Emerson 744 Series B, 1954 pink and black styrene, one of the vintage radios from The Hilbert Collection. Photos by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC

Some of the artists who will be featured include Blair, Sheets, Jessie Arms Botke, Rex Brandt, Phil Dike, David Hockney, Lorser Fetelson, Dong Kingman, Emil Kosa, Jr., Roger Kuntz, Jack Laycox, Jake Lee, Helen Lundeberg, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Alfredo Ramos Martinez, Agnes Pelton, Frank Romero and Milford Zornes.

A highlight of the museum is Sheets’ 40-by-16-feet glass tile mosaic, “Pleasures Along the Beach” (1969), which originally greeted visitors above the entrance of a Home Savings & Loan bank on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. The colorful mural celebrates Santa Monica beach culture, with its sunbathers, sun setting on the ocean, birds in flight and sailboats in the distance. It was initially slated for demolition when a developer bought the building in 2019.

Brian Worley, an intern for Sheets in 1969, was one of the original installers of the mural, and he has returned 55 years later to install the 15-ton mosaic overhead at the exterior entryway of the Hilbert Museum.

The newly redesigned Hilbert Museum features a 40-foot wide restored mosaic “Pleasures Along the Beach” by Millard Sheets in Orange. Photos by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC

“I’m delighted that we could find a new home for this landmark piece and privileged to have played a role in its restoration history,” Worley told the museum in one of its promotional supplements. “It went from greeting Home Savings customers to introducing museum visitors to the wonders of California art.”     

On another overhead façade of the museum, a John Edward Svenson bronze sculpture of a girl riding a dolphin (circa 1970) playfully greets visitors coming in from Cypress Street.

“We wanted to make the museum accessible and welcoming to visitors,” Hilbert said. “We want visitors to feel welcome and enjoy their time here, not feel alienated.”  

It’s All About Location

“It’s a much better, easier location,” Mark Hilbert said in a 2019 interview. “It’s right off of Chapman, three-quarters of a block away. It’s so easy. And there’s a lot of people that go to Ruby’s and go to the train station. We thought in the long run, this will be ideal.”

Indeed, the current location at 167 N. Atchison St. is located directly across from the Orange Metrolink Station, aka the Orange Santa Fe Depot. A bus station is diagonally across the street, and a free, 700-car garage is 1.5 blocks away. There’s also free street parking in the neighborhood and another free parking garage within walking distance.

The outside of the Hilbert Museum as been refreshed as a part of the building’s expansion.

PHOTO 1: Part of the west-facing facade

PHOTO 2: The west-facing facade of the newly re-designed Hilbert Museum

PHOTO 3: The new main entrance

PHOTO 4: Mark Hilbert, left, at the entrance to the newly added wing. Photos by Paul Rodriguez, Culture OC

But It’s Also About the Art

Of course, the main draw should be – and is – the artworks hanging inside, and organizers have worked hard to provide excellent examples of California scene painting, representational art, modern art and some examples of the Hilbert’s extensive Disney animated and illustrated art collection.

In the coming months and years, visitors may get to see more examples of the Hilberts’ Native American pottery collection, which includes Pueblo, and specifically Acoma, pottery.

But the focus is and will always be on California art. It’s still part of the name of the institution, after all.  

“These are works that are worthy of being seen by the public. They have resonance,” Platt said. “They have meaning. They’re meaningful to people outside the Hilbert family. What the works tell is this important story about California, showing everyday life in California.”  

The Hilbert Museum, which originally opened in 2016, joins a cadre of other local museums that concentrate on California art: Laguna Art Museum, the Orange County Museum of Art, and the Langson Institute and Museum of California Art, which is operating in a temporary space on Von Karman Avenue (formerly the Irvine Museum), with plans to construct a future home at UC Irvine North Campus along Campus Drive and Jamboree Road.

So is there a competition going on among area California-focused museums?

“I don’t see us as competitors, I see us as partners,” Platt said. “We’re so glad to be part of the arts renaissance in Orange County. We’re all working together to make Orange County an arts destination.”

Mark Hilbert pulled out his smartphone and remarked dryly, “This is our competition, right here.”

Hilbert Museum of California Art reopening

Where: 167 N. Atchison St., Orange

When: Opens Friday, Feb. 23; hours will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

Cost: Free, reservations required

Information: (714) 516-5880 or hilbertmuseum.org



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