Mark and Janet Hilbert

Mark and Janet Hilbert

New York City-born Mark Hilbert arrived with his family in Pasadena at the age of three months – and has been a proud Californian ever since. He graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1966 with a degree in engineering, and immediately went to work for the Trane Company as an air conditioning engineer, a job he worked at for two decades. Over the course of that time, he began buying residential properties in Southern California. In 1985, he invented the “Chiller Optimizer,” a new product that reduced the energy consumption of air conditioning units. He sold the product in 1987 and began to devote this full time to managing his residential properties. In 1988, he founded Hilbert Property Management, a Newport Beach-based company in which he still serves as managing partner.

Mark married his wife, Janet, in 1994. Janet received her master’s degree and teaching credential from the University of Southern California, and served as professor of business at Santa Ana College for 35 years. Mark and Janet, who have three children and six grandchildren, reside in Newport Beach.

The couple began to collect California Scene paintings in 1992, when they bought a house together in Palm Springs and wanted to decorate it with original art. “I found our first California Scene painting at a consignment shop in Palm Springs that had a complete assortment of California watercolors,” Mark says. “It was love at first sight. After buying that first one, we developed an appreciation for the style. Since then, we’ve educated ourselves and continued to collect, and have now moved into collecting oil paintings and lithographs as well as watercolors.

“Building the Museum here at Chapman University is the perfect union of synergies,” Mark continues. “The ties with Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts and the art and history departments will be very important. The setting here in the historic City of Orange, with its Old Towne district right in the heart of Southern California – all this combines to make Chapman the perfect home for our collection and the new Hilbert Museum of California Art. “

Statement from Mark and Janet Hilbert

People always ask us how we started collecting art. In 1992, we purchased a small house in Palm Springs and when we closed escrow, we realized we had just a small amount of money left over to furnish it. So we started hunting consignment shops and garage sales. One day in a consignment store we discovered a wall of California Scene watercolors and decided to buy one. We took it home and hung it on the wall. Although it was just a simple landscape with a road, we fell in love with the watercolor medium and went back and bought more.

On our second visit, we discovered The California Style: California Watercolor Artists 1925-1955, the excellent book by Gordon McClelland. We read and reread the book and became acquainted with the broad variety of subject matter and artists depicting everyday life in California. As we had grown up in California, we could immediately relate to the images. Since watercolor paints and easels were very portable, many were done on the spot and had that special quality of spontaneity and in-the-moment realism that we appreciated. We also discovered that these artists frequently painted in oils and used other mediums.

Many art experts recognized that this was a largely overlooked but important art movement, so we studied the period, gained more knowledge about the style, and continued to purchase more California Scene paintings, both oil and watercolor. It was recommended that we spend time in Europe going to museums to study the great masters in order to further educate our eyes -- very much like what was recommended to young artists. While there, we discovered a Dutch artist by the name of Pieter Breugel (1525-1569). His paintings were of everyday life in the 16th century -- and the parallel with the California Scene paintings was unmistakable.

When we came home from that trip, we realized that the art we had hanging on our walls stood up well to work being done anywhere in the world in the mid-twentieth century. Although Paris and New York are generally recognized as the major art centers, Los Angeles, at the time, probably had more artists working, than in any city anywhere in the world.

This was during the Depression and the movie studios were voraciously hiring artists for set design, backdrops (large watercolors, as oil glares when photographed), cartoon animation, poster design and advertising. There were thousands of artists working and getting paychecks in L.A. when most artists elsewhere were starving. This phenomenon continued through the 1960s. The studios were relentlessly pushing the artists to greater and greater heights. The invention of Technicolor called for large numbers of artists, as all sets were now in color. So did full-length animated movies, a concept developed by Walt Disney.

These very same artists created fine art on weekends and evenings and during times when they were between jobs – and they left behind a treasure trove of art, much of it with their families. Also, during this period these artists received many 1st place and gold medal awards. This combination of California's unique way of life with the unusually high quality of art fascinated my wife and me. Also, we discovered that examples of this art were selected by numerous art museums across the country. A painting by Millard Sheets called “Tenement House” was selected to hang in the White House.

As we continued to collect, we found ourselves attracted more and more to paintings that tell a story or have a narrative. These were usually figurative paintings. One of our earliest examples is an oil painting from 1918, painted by Edouard Vysekal. Titled “Intramovement,” it shows the interior of the Boos Brothers Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles, depicting many customers and waiters hustling around.

Our collection includes a large variety of subject matter, including California Scene paintings, still lifes, landscapes, western art and portraits. Also many different mediums: oils, watercolors, pastels, mixed media, drawings and lithographs. This offers the opportunity for a very wide variety of thematic exhibition possibilities.

It is our sincere hope that a visit to the Hilbert Museum will offer you the same pleasure looking at the paintings as it gives us.