One of California’s newest museums is already looking toward expanding and nearly tripling its size.
The Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University opened in Old Towne Orange in February 2016.
Housed in a former auto repair garage and warehouse/storage facility, the Hilbert Museum specializes in California Scene painting and California representational art.
It was founded in November 2014 when Newport Beach couple Mark and Jan Hilbert announced its formation and donated $3 million to Chapman, along with about 240 artworks. The works include some of the finest achievements in California scene painting, including pieces by Rex Brandt, Phil Dike, Emil Kosa Jr., Roger Kuntz, Joan Irving, Ruth Peabody, Phil Paradise and Milford Zornes.
The Hilbert Museum’s current location at 167 N. Atchison St. was always intended to be a temporary space. For years, the Hilberts and the university viewed the historic Villa Park Orchards Assoc. Packing House at Cypress Street and Palm Avenue — which Chapman also owns —as its permanent home.
But the benefactors grew to love the current space, which is conveniently located across the street from the Orange Metrolink station and a classic Ruby’s Diner.
“It’s a much better, easier location,” Mark Hilbert said. “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.”
Now the plan for the Hilbert Museum is to take over the dance department, which has a studio next door to the museum, plus a building for offices and a smaller studio across a small parking lot to the north.
The dance department will now move into the Villa Park Orchards Packing House, a yellow structure that is still adorned with a “Sunkist” sign at the top.
“We’re going to trade with dance department,” said Mary Platt, director of the Hilbert Museum since 2017. “They’re going into the Packing House. They get a big expansion. We have 7,500 square feet now, and we’re going to get more than 21,000.”
According to museum officials, Chapman will convert the dance department offices into exhibition spaces and a library or research facility. A new connector building will occupy the small parking lot and bridge the two structures. Entrances will probably face toward the train station and toward an existing parking structure to the east of the Hilbert.
Plus, organizers plan to incorporate room for external event space in the connecting area.
Overall, the final facility will encompass approximately 21,700 square feet, nearly tripling the current size. Construction is slated to begin in 2021, with doors opening by 2022 or 2023.
“It’s going to give us the opportunity to be a more dynamic place,” said Platt, Chapman’s former director of communications and media relations who became the Hilbert’s director in 2017. “An even more diverse and welcoming place for varied audiences, even more so than we are now.”
In future plans, which haven’t been formally drafted yet, the current facility will continue to exhibit California art. But the expansion will house art objects from various cultures in the Americas.
Hilbert owns a fairly sizable collection of Native American serapes, or wearing blankets. “These are blankets that the Navajos wore for themselves,” he said.
He has also amassed a collection of Pueblo pottery, as well as Mexican saltillos, or wearing blankets.
He boasts a basket collection made by California and Southwestern Native Americans, including pieces from Apache, Tongva and Yokuts cultures.
“We will include Native American (pieces), and may include ceramics from Mexico,” Hilbert said. “We have tourist pottery — historic pottery sold at the border cities. We also have Navajo weavings. We’re also planning to have (in the museum) examples of mid-century design, like plastic radios from the 1940s and ‘50s.”
The new building may be called the Gallery of the Americas, Platt said. Or it may prompt the Hilbert Museum to reconsider its name, and choose something more expansive than “California art.”
“That’s a larger conversation,” Platt said. “It remains to be seen. But the possibilities are just really endless.”
The price tag on the expansion is a bit north of $3 million, which is the donation the Hilberts initially gave to the university. Since it will be a university-sponsored project, Chapman is expected to pitch in for labor, administrative and other costs, and may also sponsor a fundraising campaign to augment the Hilberts’ donation. There could be possible naming opportunities in the future for galleries and meeting rooms and such.
Mark Hilbert, managing partner of a Newport Beach-based property management firm, met with Chapman President Daniele Struppa earlier this month to finalize conceptual plans for the project.
Struppa, who was traveling in Europe as this piece was being reported and written, could not be reached for comment.
But his office has always been supportive of the Hilbert Museum, as was the office of his predecessor, longtime president James Doti.
“We will probably reconceive exteriors of the existing structures,” Platt surmised about the future look of the Hilbert. “We’re going to put out a [request for quote] to architecture firms.”
Mosaic By A Legend
The good fortune for the Hilbert Museum seems to keep rolling as the museum has just accepted the gift of a 40-foot glass tile mosaic by Millard Sheets that has graced the façade of a former Home Savings and Loan Bank in Santa Monica since 1969.
“Pleasures Along the Beach” is a 16.5-foot high, 40-foot long mosaic depicting colorful California beach and ocean life. It is comprised of thousands of small glass tiles, called tesserae, manufactured by the Murano glass artisans of Venice, Italy. The pieces shimmer in hues of pink, orange, green, purple, silver and gold.
Sheets, a noted California Scene painter, finished 75 to 80 of these murals, with dozens decorating Home Savings of America buildings throughout California and several other states. Businessman Howard F. Ahmanson Sr. gave Sheets complete control of design, subject matter, exterior and interior decoration and budget for 160 branches offices of Home Savings of America, according to information provided by the Hilbert Museum and recounted in Eric John Abrahamson’s book, “Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream.”
“It was serendipity,” said Hilbert about his acquisition of the Sheets mosaic. “Just the way life is sometimes, when all the pieces are right, they’re right.”
Of course, there is a backstory to this mosaic, which is located at 2600 Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica. For a while, it was part of a designated landmark for the city of Santa Monica. Groups such as the Santa Monica Conservancy have fought to keep the building and mosaic intact.
But Santa Monica’s city council and its Landmarks Commission could not agree on the historic designation, and building owner Mark Leevan, who wanted to demolish the structure, and his attorney Roger Diamond threatened to sue the city.
Finally in September, the city settled a lawsuit with the property owner and revoked the building’s historic designation. Leevan agreed to preserve the mosaic and donate it to the city or a nonprofit organization.
“We had the fortune of stepping up at the right opportunity,” Hilbert said. “It’s actually the best of both worlds, really. We will preserve and take care of it.”
According to Hilbert, the museum is planning to mount the mosaic on the side of the building, most likely on the side facing the train station.
Hilbert didn’t want to reveal the price of the mosaic, because it’s still being appraised. But rare works such as this one, fully intact with a known provenance, could easily sell in the seven figures.
In addition to the Sheets mosaic, the museum has accepted two additional artworks from the property owner. They are Richard H. Ellis’ “Family Group,” a 1969 cast bronze sculpture of a man, woman and child dancing in a circle; and John Edward Svenson’s “Child on a Dolphin,” a 1969 cast bronze sculpture depicting a young girl riding a dolphin with another dolphin leaping alongside.
Following the Rules
The Hilbert Museum, along with the rest of Chapman University, is in a historic district itself — Old Town Orange. Every new structure, renovation or modification must get approval from Orange’s city council and its Historic Preservation committee.
The expansion of the Hilbert Museum is no exception, and it will undergo a careful look by the city, which ultimately maintains approval rights.
“Anything we do with the exterior of this museum is carefully worked out with the city of Orange,” Platt said. “There are definitely guidelines. There are things the city would not go for. There’s a look and feel that you have to adhere to. We want to be very respectful of that, and we will be.”
Jack Raubolt, Chapman’s vice president of community relations, said he and the university support the Hilbert Museum’s expansion. They also want to “make sure the city and the neighbors are happy.”
“People are aware of the expansion plans because we tell them about it,” Raubolt said. “In general, they would love to see more art in and around the Hilbert. What we’re doing is just repurposing.”
Orange residents know that Chapman University has been growing exponentially over the past couple of decades. The university has more than doubled in size and students over the past 25 years. Its 82-acre footprint north of the Orange Plaza (Circle) is indelible and undeniable.
“Overall growth always comes with its growing pains, so to speak,” Raubolt said. “We have a lot of agencies and people that benefit from Chapman being here. At the same time, you have people who would like it to stay the way it is and not expand.
“We want to be good neighbors. We are a part of this community. We work really hard on issues that put us in a negative light.”
Perhaps no one at Chapman knows its recent growth — and the Hilbert Museum’s role in it — better than Jim Doti. The former president oversaw the bulk of those expansion years, serving as president an impressive 25 years from 1991 to 2016. He also served as interim president.
“I’d have to say one of the things I’m very proud of, or most proud of, is that collection became part of the university during my tenure,” said Doti, who is still a business and economics professor at Chapman. “Every great university has a great art collection.”
Doti is also pleased with the community’s response to the Hilbert Museum, which is free and had about 30,000 visitors last year.
“It’s everything and more than I ever expected. It has surpassed my wildest imagination in terms of its impact, and the incredible community response to it.”
Doti knows a thing or two about California representational art, which he collects as well. Last year, he and his wife Lynne donated 17 paintings to the museum, including works by Sheets, Brandt, Franz Bischoff, Kosa Jr., Irv Wyner, Jack Laycox and others.
The former Chapman president is a staunch supporter of the expansion, which is consistent with his vision of the university’s growth.
“Good things grow. Nothing is static,” he said. “To paraphrase Woody Allen in ‘Annie Hall,’ a shark has to keep moving to live. We need to provide the kind of space that will nurture that growth.
“We need more room. We plan and develop that in a way that’s conducive to (faculty, staff and students’) current needs. It’s a win-win. Everybody seems to be happy.”
Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at [email protected].