Although it’s only three years old, Chapman University’s Hilbert Museum of California Art has already left its mark on the world of visual arts with its large and iconic collection that celebrates the remarkable cultural achievements of the Golden State.
On view now through October 2019, the Hilbert will host a group of early California paintings belonging to Gardena High School, a little-known but breathtaking collection considered to be one of the best of its kind in the country.
From 1919 until the early 1980s, graduating classes at the suburban Los Angeles school purchased mainly California plein air works, many of them by artists who later became famous.
“This is an amazing new exhibition,” said Hilbert Museum director Mary Platt. “The Gardena High School Art Collection is often cited as one of the state’s greatest collections of California art.”
The tradition started quietly just after World War I, when the graduating class of 1919 spent $50 on a painting for the school. “Every senior class through 1956 gifted the school with a painting, and many of them were by major artists,” Platt said. “They have some big names and important works.”
Platt said some experts on the era think the Gardena Collection’s Maynard Dixon painting is one of the great American masterworks from any period.
Aside from a small exhibition in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, Gardena’s collection hasn’t been seen outside the school grounds. “And that exhibit was nowhere near the scope of this one,” Platt said.
Gardena High School officials wanted to stage a significant public showing of its paintings to honor the centennial of the first gift. An event was planned for the Pasadena Museum of California Art, but it closed late last year. “They were left without a place to show their works,” Platt said. “They went to every museum and they were all booked up. Then they came to us, even though they didn’t really want to go outside of L.A. They asked us, ‘Is there a possibility we could show it at your museum?’”
Platt was delighted by the offer.
“I saw what they had and I said, ‘We’ve got to move everything around and get this in here.’ It’s such a great exhibition,” she says.
The Hilbert Museum was named Orange County’s best art museum in OC Weekly’s 2018 Best of Orange County awards. The three-year old Hilbert was praised as “a colorful, lively, occasionally even experimental space for art.”
Loren Roberta Barton (1893-1975), “Day’s End,” c. 1947, oil on canvas. Gift of the Class of Summer 1947 to Gardena High School.
Loren Barton is one of the important women artists in the Gardena HS Collection. Here she portrays two women in a migrant camp at the end of a day’s work – a commentary on the difficult social and economic times of the Great Depression. The painting refers to the plight of women who joined the agricultural labor force with their families, living in tents and makeshift homes – evocatively portraying their exhaustion and quiet resignation.