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Historic Gardena High School Art Collection on View at Hilbert Museum

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.

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“Men of the Red Earth” by Maynard Dixon highlights the quality of the Gardena High School Art Collection, now being exhibited at the Hilbert Museum.

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.”

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John Hubbard Rich (1876-1954), “The Brass Bowl,” 1922, oil on canvas. Gift of the Class of Summer 1924 to Gardena High School. The woman’s dress merges and coalesces with the background, becoming a kind of impressionist mosaic of color.

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.”

Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971), “Cranes Under a Giant Fern,” c. 1943, oil and gold leaf on canvas. Gift of the Class of Summer 1943 to Gardena High School.

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Jessie Arms Botke was celebrated for her elegant, stylized interpretations of exotic birds in lush gardens, with backgrounds of real 22-karat gold leaf. The students may have selected this painting because it is highly influenced by historical Japanese screen paintings. By 1943, nearly a third of the Gardena HS student body, the sons and daughters of local Japanese-American farmers, had been removed to U.S. internment camps. Selection of this painting may have been the remaining students’ way of paying tribute to the friends they missed, according to exhibition curator Susan M. Anderson.

Display image at top/John Frost (1890-1937), “Desert Twilight,” c. 1928, oil on canvas. Gift of the Class of Winter 1928 to Gardena High School. This is a lucid and delicate interpretation of a desert landscape near Palm Springs, in the purpling shadows as the last light of day fades away.