CMATO's "Gifted" Historical High School Art Collection Chronicles Creative Journey

Over one hundred years ago, in 1919, an extraordinary art collection was born.

At the recommendation of their principal, the senior class of Gardena High School gifted the school with an original landscape painting by Ralph Davison Miller, beginning what was to become a unique, annual tradition.

For nearly 40 years, until 1956, each senior class selected, purchased and donated works of art to the school, ultimately amassing an exceptional permanent collection of paintings in the Impressionist, figurative and landscape genres.

Today, the Gardena High School Art Collection is widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s outstanding collections of early 20th century California art, with works by some of the state’s most celebrated artists. Through more than 50 paintings, “Gifted” traces the history of Southern California art in the early 20th century, when plein-air painting and the arts and crafts movement were flourishing, and chronicles the school’s ambitious efforts within the wider cultural scene of Los Angeles at that time.

This month, on September 10, the California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks proudly presents the Ventura County debut of this remarkable and timely exhibition, on view through January 9, 2022.

An exhibition often cited as comprising one of the greatest collections of early California art, “GIFTED: Collecting the Art of California at Gardena High School, 1919-1956” is organized by the GHS Art Collection, Inc., in association with the Gardena High School Student Body, and curated by Susan M. Anderson. The selection of nearly 50 paintings from the GHS Art collection, including Impressionist works by notable artists such as William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Jean Mannheim, Franz Bischoff and Agnes Pelton and later works by Maynard Dixon, Emil Kosa, Jr., Loren Barton and Francis de Erdely reflect the influence of the American Scene movement, popular during the Depression era, as well as the dramatic shifts in style characteristic of art of the post-war period.

The exhibition chronicles the history of a lesson in art appreciation for a Southern California high school that would mature into what is widely acknowledged as one of the most outstanding collections of early California Impressionism in the nation.

“'Gifted' is an inspirational exhibition that will educate CMATO’s visitors about the documentary ability of art as well as the creative journey of evolving artistic styles throughout time,” says CMATO Senior Curator Lynn Farrand. “What was considered contemporary art in the early 20th century is now a historical style that is rarely practiced but revered as a style that is enjoyed by many. Inspiration lies in the paintings’ ability to portray humankind’s history of struggle, triumph and stoic resilience through challenging times—themes that are so pertinent and relevant to our present lives.”


GHS senior classes carefully selected and purchased each painting from an artist of note, often reflecting historical content from that year. The high level of sophistication demonstrated by the students’ choices was the result of the aesthetic discourse and collaboration nurtured by the school. Over the years, artists, federal art projects and other individuals and organizations also made gifts of art to the collection.

“Gardena High School helped to start an interest in art appreciation and art collecting among high schools regionally and nationally. The high quality of its collection speaks to the enthusiasm and embrace of the program, not just by the students and educators, but by the entire Southern California art community,” says Anderson.

Today, the GHS Art Collection remains an enduring example of the power of art to rally a community and to shape people’s lives.

“During the years in which the collection was being formed, GHS students suffered through WWI, the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and then WWII, when a third of the student body was sent to internment camps. These momentous events are all reflected in the works the students collected,” says Anderson.

For decades, the collection and the effort to preserve its legacy made the high school the center of the community. When Gardena High School moved to a new campus in 1956, the program ended. The collection was quietly locked away on campus, unavailable for viewing by the student body or the public. However, the collection has continued to tie together diverse generations of students and citizens in the city of Gardena and the South Bay area of Los Angeles. 

In 2013, GHS alumni created the nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable organization GHS Art Collection, Inc. for the protection and preservation of the works of art owned by the Gardena High School Student Body.

“The exercise in collecting and organizing an art exhibition exposed the students and the wider community to lessons in art appreciation, as well as in good citizenship, collaboration and debate. The collection still ties generations of students and community members together in the Gardena Valley,” says Bruce Dalrymple, an alumnus of the high school and board president of the GHS Art Collection, Inc.

“GIFTED: Collecting the Art of California at Gardena High School” originated with a centennial exhibition at the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University in Orange, California in 2019 before traveling to the Fresno Art Museum and the Oceanside Museum of Art in 2020.

As part of the exhibition’s run, CMATO will feature lectures and art-related programming for the community to engage with the works on view. Anderson, who curated the 100-year celebratory exhibition in 2019, will present a lecture about the collection at CMATO on Thursday, September 30 at 6 p.m. Additional program information will be posted on CMATO.org.

The exhibition will feature a Spanish language handout for non-English speakers.

CMATO is open to the public Friday through Sunday from 12 to 6 p.m. General admission is free; a $6 donation is suggested.

The California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks (CMATO) is a cultural institution dedicated to engaging, educating and uplifting the human spirit through the palette of art. Established in 2008, the museum showcases established and emerging contemporary artists, with a unique focus on participatory art. As part of its mission to connect people to creativity, ideas and to each other, CMATO features rotating temporary exhibitions, artist lectures and educational programs that foster discussion, participation and an appreciation for the visual arts.

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