When young Toby Selyem started his new job as a seasonal, part-time park aide at Hearst Castle in November 1998, he had no clue that he’d still be working there two decades later in the much-respected post of curator.
Instead, Selyem told The Tribune in a series of interviews, he thought he’d convert one or more of his hobbies — woodworking, fixing up cars — into a career.
But Hearst Castle knocked, and he opened the door to what would become a lifelong career and passion.
He’s dedicated to keeping the Castle and its artifacts intact, in good shape and as close as possible to the way they were in 1957 when the Hearst family donated to the state the soaring hilltop estate of late media magnate William Randolph Hearst.
For Selyem, the true beauty of the state monument museum and his job is “preserving the originality of Hearst Castle,” he said. “There’s so much work to be done” to make that happen.
Curating at Hearst Castle
So, what does a curator do?
It takes more than 200 words on the state jobs website to describe the job of curator I. But the Clif’s Notes version is: Planning, organizing and managing programs of acquisition, conservation, registration, interpretation and/or storage of museum objects at established park area/house museums.
Technically, castle curating has four levels: curator I, II, III and museum director. Selyem is a curator I, but since the next two levels up are vacant for now, curatorial responsibilities are currently divvied up between him and museum director Mary Levkoff.
That adds challenges to Selyem’s new post, he said, “because there’s nobody here to train me. So, I reach out to other curators and other State Parks staff in Sacramento.”
“It’s especially gratifying to have the opportunity to promote an excellent member of the staff,” Levkoff said. “Toby Selyem has always welcomed challenges cheerfully, and he has carried additional responsibilities since last autumn when (previous curator II) Frank Young retired.”
“Toby also has a tremendous sense of organization,” Levkoff said.
“The position of curator I at Hearst castle is the equivalent of the head of technical services at a traditional art museum, which coordinates the wide-ranging functions necessary to care for our very varied and rich collection,” she explained.
She said the Castle should launch its search for a curator II soon.
Selyem said he’d like to eventually move further up the chain of command. To do so, he’d have to go back to college for related studies and degrees, then pass the next-level test. His years as curator I also could be a factor.
Hearst Castle is “a wonderful place to work,” he said, with “many kinds of people devoted to their work here. … Because they love their work, they’re in a good mood. It makes me excited” to go to work each day.
Selyem said he especially loves being at the Castle “first thing in the morning, before it gets busy. I’m here by 6:30 a.m.”
His favorite indoor spot on the estate is the 2,550-square-foot Casa Del Monte, or, B House, the smallest of the guest houses. “
If I was going to live up here, that’s where I’d want to live,” he said. “Outside on the hilltop? Anywhere is awesome.”
Lighting improvements and artwork
As a museum tech for more than 11 years, Selyem said, “I repaired parts of the building and the furniture,” always striving to “make it like it was.”
He emphasized that the work “wasn’t about replacement, it was repair.” “It’s about conservation of the artwork, the building, the furniture inside it,” he said. “That’s what I’m passionate about.”
Selyem is not just open to innovation; he embraces it.
In December 2014, he began a project to convert the indoor hilltop lighting to LEDs to save money and protect fragile artifacts that could be damaged by incandescent light.
With his passion for historical accuracy, Selyem wasn’t willing to compromise the look of the new lighting. “Finding a period-correct looking light bulb was challenging at first,” Selyem said, but fortunately “now there are companies making them.”
He said the LEDs and the light they produce “look fantastic.”
“Out of just over 2,000 total light bulbs turned on for tours daily, only 150 or so are still incandescent,” he said. “Those are unique-shaped bulbs that have been a challenge to find in LED. But I’ve found a source and will hopefully be completing the project in the next few months.”
“As for the power consumption,” Selyem said, “it’s been cut down by approximately 80%.”
And UV-blocking film installed on the windows “helps tremendously with fading and discoloration of art objects,” he said.
Selyem also supervises Hearst Castle’s collections maintenance staff, which includes people doing many of the jobs he held before: museum technicians, custodians, senior maintenance aides and senior park aides. Selyem’s first tasks at the Castle revolved around putting up holiday decorations in the Castle’s oversized public rooms.
He and his staff frequently, painstakingly must “install and deinstall artwork for conservation work and loans for other museums,” he said.
Recently, they loaned the 17th-century painting “Virgin of the Pillar Appearing to Saint James” by Claudio Coello to the San Diego Museum of Art. It’s appearing in the exhibition “Art & Empire: The Golden Age of Spain,” which runs through Sept. 2.
The painting had been on display in the second-floor Room 3 of Casa Grande’s North Wing, an area of the main house that is shown on tour. But the room has plenty of other art items to entrance visitors.
The precise ballet Selyem and his staff regularly perform to remove and replace artifacts is delicate and nerve-wracking, given the dimensions, weight, antiquity and jaw-dropping value of many of the objects. Removing large
paintings and heavy artworks often involves using a scissor lift.
“You don’t want to damage it, yourself or anybody else,” he said.
Other tasks can be equally daunting, he said, such as “being on scaffolding 25 feet in the air, cleaning a tapestry … or transferring artwork out a window because it’s too large to go down the stairwell or elevator.”
“You end up working on projects you never expected,” he said. “You have to be aware of your surroundings at all times.”
Fortunately, he enjoys problem solving.
Growing up in San Luis Obispo County
Born in Santa Barbara, Selyem and his family moved to Los Osos in 1980 when he was 6 years old. He graduated from Morro Bay High School in 1991.
He, his wife Corliss, who works for Idler’s Home, and their two Boston terriers, Oakley and Bolt, live in Paso Robles.
Toby Selyem’s first jobs included tossing newspapers and mowing lawns. His first formal job was as the mailroom clerk for the Sun Bulletin newspaper in Morro Bay.
His hobbies today mirror the ones he had as a young man, including woodworking and working on old cars like the 1971 Toyota Land Cruiser that’s in his garage now. He also loves to cook, from tending the barbecue to whipping up Thai or Filipino cuisine.
Selyem’s job as a Hearst Castle curator pays $4,166 a month.