When Newport Beach property managing chief and art collector Mark Hilbert was a young man growing up in Pasadena, he drove a truck all over Los Angeles.
“I got to know Los Angeles, so later, when I started seeing California Scene paintings available for sale, the pieces I could connect with were places I knew and loved,” Hilbert said in a recent interview.
“Like Olvera Street, the [Angels Flight] funicular that goes up — all the different scenes. I didn’t have an idea of ever doing a Los Angeles area scene show.”
Yet, more than 30 years after those truck-driving days, that’s exactly what he and the museum named after him and his wife Janet are doing.
Through May 2, the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University is presenting “Los Angeles Area Scene Paintings.”
The exhibition features about 78 paintings from 1913 to 2017, plus a few dozen pieces of ephemera from the early to mid-20th century. The exhibit’s curators are the father-son team of Gordon T. and Austin D. McClelland.
The paintings capture Los Angeles County’s emergence as an agricultural society and its transition into an industrial powerhouse. Artists painted bucolic scenes of Southern California landscapes and coastlines, but they also depicted hard times during the Depression and the impact of cars, the movie business and Hollywood studios on the culture.
Notable landmarks and places in the show include the Hollywood Bowl, L.A.’s City Hall, Angels Flight, the Capitol Records building, Canter’s Deli, the Santa Monica pier, Bunker Hill, Chavez Ravine and Chinatown.
Some of Southern California’s most accomplished artists are featured in this show, including Emil Kosa Jr., Millard Sheets, Rex Brandt, Phil Dike, Roger Kuntz, Burr Singer and Sandow Birk.
“The show and the [accompanying] book link California painting with California social history and its evolution, from relatively representational through more abstraction, back to representational again,” said Gordon McClelland, a San Clemente writer, curator and collector who has a studio in Santa Ana.
He has developed an expertise on California Scene and watercolor paintings, and has written several books on those subjects.
“Most of these artists are the first generation of artists who were actually born in California, educated in California and painted in California,” he said. “Prior to that, most of the people came from somewhere else.”
From the Depression up through the decades following World War II, Los Angeles and Southern California became a magnet for artists who could find steady work through the movie studios, such as Disney and Twentieth Century-Fox.
Kosa Jr. worked as a scenic artist at Twentieth Century-Fox for 35 years, painting backdrops and winning an Academy Award for his special effects work on “Cleopatra.”
Kosa Jr.’s paintings of downtown L.A. and rural, then-undeveloped parts of L.A. County are of particular historic note in this exhibition.
Phil Dike worked on many classic, animated Disney films, such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Three Caballeros.” His “Sunday Afternoon in the Plaza de Los Angeles,” a 1939 oil on canvas, depicts one of the oldest sections of downtown Los Angeles, right next to Olvera Street and across the street from Union Station.
Other artists worth checking out include Mischa Askenazy, Ben Abril, Dorothy Sklar, Suong Yangchareon and Milford Zornes.
Some local visitors may wonder what the significance is of a show depicting Los Angeles County for an Orange County museum and audience.
“We did a San Francisco scene painting show last year, so we’re hitting the different important large areas of the scene painting genre,” said Mary Platt, director of the Hilbert Museum since 2017. “I think it’s important for our Orange County audience because the term ‘Orange Curtain’ has always been a little bit not really true. The Orange County population has always been going up to Los Angeles, even since these early days.
“That’s the reason they had a Highway 101 going down to Laguna Beach. The Hollywood crowd would go down there, and people would go up there,” she continued. “I think there’s always been a back and forth between Orange County and Los Angeles. So we’re very familiar with the sights that are shown in these paintings, like the Hollywood Bowl, Capital Records tower, the various boulevards and avenues, Wilshire Boulevard, the coast and beaches.”
Museum looking to expand boundaries
The Hilbert Museum, which opened in February 2016, is anticipating a major expansion in the coming years. The current 7,500-square-foot facility — located in Old Town Orange across the street from the Orange Metrolink station and Ruby’s Diner — is going to take over the dance department next door and build a second floor, Hilbert said.
When complete, the museum will triple its size, with a facility between 21,000 and 28,500 square feet. The price of the expansion will be around $14 million, Hilbert said. Though discussions are ongoing with Chapman University, which owns and operates the museum, a groundbreaking is tentatively scheduled for late 2021 to early 2022, with doors opening between 2022 and 2023.
The Hilbert Museum, which is free, had about 30,000 visitors last year.
“With the expansion, I believe our goal is by year 10 to have 100,000 visitors per year,” said Hilbert, 75, who is gifted with high energy. “I’m not getting any younger. We need to make this happen.”
The museum was founded in November 2014 when the Hilberts announced its formation and donated $3 million to Chapman, along with 240 artworks.
The Hilbert Museum has also just opened a small exhibition of plein air paintings by Silverado Canyon artist Monica Edwards, whose work can be seen at the summertime Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach.
“We wanted to showcase her as part of a plan to showcase more Orange County artists that are working in the styles that the museum champions, such as plein air,” Platt said.
“Monica Edwards: Slices of Life” runs through May 2.
IF YOU GO
What: “Los Angeles Area Scene Paintings”
Where: Hilbert Museum of California Art, 167 N. Atchison St., Orange
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; now through May 2
Information: (714) 516-5880 or hilbertmuseum.com