Mark and Janet Hilbert

Mark Hilbert was born in New York City and arrived with his family in Pasadena at the age of three months – he has been a proud Californian ever since. After graduating from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, in 1966 with a degree in engineering, he went to work for the Trane Company as an air conditioning engineer. During the two decades he held that job, Mark 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 his invention in 1987 and began managing his residential properties full time. In 1988, he founded Hilbert Property Management, a Newport Beach-based company in which he still serves as managing partner.

Mark and Janet began collecting 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.”

Among the world’s most prolific collectors and exhibitors of California art, Mark and Janet Hilbert now own more than 3,000 watercolors, oil paintings, and prints that depict everyday life in the Golden State – along with major collections of animation and movie production art, and American illustrations. Committed to the concept of art as a storytelling and teaching medium, the two pledged an initial $10 million gift to Chapman University to establish the Hilbert Museum of California Art and have made successive donations to fund a major expansion.

“Building the Museum here at Chapman University is the perfect union of synergies,” Mark explains. “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.”

Mark received an honorary doctorate from Chapman in 2021. 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. The two wed in 1994 and have three children and six grandchildren.

Statement from Mark & Janet Hilbert

People always ask us how we started collecting art. Like most passions, ours grew from one moment of inspiration. 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 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, went back, and bought more.

On our second visit, we discovered an excellent book by Gordon McClelland titled The California Style: California Watercolor Artists 1925-1955. 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 the Golden State, 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 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. With increasing interest to learn more, we were encouraged to spend time in Europe going to museums to study the great masters – 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 – we noticed the unmistakable parallel with the California Scene paintings.

When we came home from that trip, we realized that the art we had hanging on our walls fared well against 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 any city anywhere in the world.

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

These very same artists created fine art on weekends, in the evenings, and during times when they were between jobs – and they left behind a treasure trove of artwork, much of it with their families. These artists and their art received many first place and gold medal awards. This combination of California’s unique way of life with the unusually high quality of art fascinated us. We discovered that examples of this art were selected by numerous art museums across the country and that 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 by Edouard Vysekal titled “Intramovement,” which 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 life works, landscapes, western art, and portraits, and many different mediums: oils, watercolors, pastels, mixed media, drawings, and lithographs.

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