The Hilbert Museum of California Art is home to one of the world’s largest collections of California narrative art.

And it’s about to get even bigger.

Located in Old Towne Orange near Chapman University, the museum expansion is currently undergoing major construction, allowing for expansion from 7,500 square feet to 22,000.

The space is scheduled to open in early 2024.

The new expansion will allow for more than 5,000 pieces of art in the Hilbert Collection to be displayed. 

“We can do different shows for the next 25 years and never have to duplicate a show, just from our own collection,” said Mark Hilbert, the private art collector behind the museum. 

While the museum currently displays an extensive collection of California scene paintings from the 1930s to the present, plus animation and movie art, the expansion will allow more room for Native American arts and American design, art movements previously not featured. 

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Their vast new space was previously Chapman University’s Dance Center, connecting it with the Hilbert Museum’s original space at 167 N. Atchison St. in Orange. 

In preparation, ​​Architect Johnston Marklee of Los Angeles designed a floating structure that frames the open-air courtyard that unites the two gallery buildings.

It will serve as a frontispiece for the “Pleasures Along the Beach,” a 1969 glass-tile mosaic by acclaimed artist Millard Sheets that was painstakingly moved from a former Home Savings Bank building in Santa Monica.

“The overall design is very user friendly, very inviting,” said Hilbert. “The galleries are not so large that they feel intimidating. There’s a certain intimacy that people feel when they go in all of the galleries,” he added. 

On top of the added galleries for permanent and visiting exhibitions, the new expansion will include a café, outdoor courtyard, research library, and a community room for lectures, classes, and events. 

Mark Hilbert gives a tour of the Hilbert Museum expansion on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. CREDIT: ELEANOR KOSKI, VOICE OF OC

The price tag for the expansion was initially estimated to surpass $3 million dollars in 2019, with the number rising to $9 million in 2021, and most recently reported as costing upwards of $12 million. 

The project was initially estimated to be completed in 2023. 

The Hilbert Museum’s director, Mary Platt, shared that after nearly ten years of planning, the approaching expansion really started to take form during lockdown. 

“During the pandemic and the close-down of Chapman, we didn’t waste any time. We actually used that year to choose the architects and then begin working with them.” said Platt. 

Signage marking the temporary location of the Hilbert Museum on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. CREDIT: ELEANOR KOSKI, VOICE OF OC

Founded and funded by Mark and Janet Hilbert, the museum collection came years after the married couple discovered their love for California art in 1992 after decorating their newly purchased Palm Springs home with their first California Scene painting.

But it took time to develop their eye for curation before the museum opened in 2016. 

“We’ve been to over 250 different galleries in Europe, and many in the United States, as well. And in each gallery, as we went, we would check out our favorites. And then compare notes,” said Hilbert, “That’s how we learned to train our eye towards quality.”

After amassing a collection of over 5,000 pieces, the couple pledged a $10 million gift to Chapman University, where the Hilbert Museum has now been home to their collection of art since 2016. 

Mark Hilbert gives a tour of the Hilbert Museum expansion on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. CREDIT: ELEANOR KOSKI, VOICE OF OC

“There’s also going to be a new gallery for illustration that’s named after former Chapman president Jim Doti and his wife, Lynn,” said Platt. “We’re just so grateful to Mark and Jan Hilbert, and to Chapman University, for bringing this to fruition.”

These ties have allowed the mission of the Hilbert Museum to engage, entertain, and inspire visitors of all ages through the unique artistic style of California Scene paintings. 

“A museum has to focus on its specialty, and this is ours: Story, you know, narrative art,” said Platt. “It’s an exciting time for us.”

Some of the museum’s most recognized pieces include one of the largest private collections of Disney art and animation, as well as works by Norman Rockwell, Millard Sheets, Emil Kosa Jr., Mary Blair, Phil Dike, Milford Zornes, and Rex Brandt. 

With the renovations passing 75% completion, the Hilbert Museum is expecting to open its doors in early 2024, with an official date due to be announced soon. 

The museum will continue to offer free admission, taking both walk-ins and online reservations. 

Mark says the museum is planning for several weeks of preview events for various audiences as well as a Chapman VIP event before public grand opening celebrations. 

Hilbert and Platt hope that the renovation will allow for the growth of an arts district in the surrounding area where there are already other established museums in Orange County.

“We’re part of this amazing sort of renaissance of museums in Orange County,” said Platt. “We don’t compete with each other. We’re partners with each other. You know, it’s like, the rising tide lifting all boats,” she added, about the other museums. 

Hilbert noted that they also plan on borrowing pieces from other museums and collectors. 

Before its grand opening, community members can still view pieces from the Hilbert Museum’s collection at the Hilbert Temporary at 216 E. Chapman Ave., in Orange, Calif., through Dec. 9.


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