The Cambrian

Hearst Castle would be 'better maintained' by private operator, report says

Hearst Castle might be “better maintained” by an operator other than State Parks, suggests a state Little Hoover Commission report released Monday. Perhaps, it notes, the Getty Museum, well versed in art collection maintenance, could better protect the hilltop mansion’s European art collection.

That idea drew mixed reaction Monday from locals with ties to the late media magnate William Randolph Hearst’s lavish estate.

“I think a private operator that knows how, and has the experience to operate a museum and protect the artifacts, may be a good solution as long as all Castle tours are run daily,” said Mel McColloch, president of the Cambria Chamber of Commerce. “As far as other parks and campgrounds operations, I think they would be better operated by private entrepreneurs who have the needed experience. We would then not be threatened with park shutdowns every year as we have been in the past.”

“I’m not convinced,” said Shirley Bianchi, a Hearst Ranch neighbor and former county supervisor. “What would be in it for Getty? Privatization isn’t always a good way to go. You’d have to have strict oversight, and then oversight of the oversight.”

“The old (State Parks) model is broken,” Little Hoover Commission Executive Director Stuart Drown told The Tribune in explaining what prompted the 100-page “Beyond Crisis: Recapturing Excellence in California’s State Park System” report.

The 13-member commission, appointed by the governor and Legislature, asked, “Is there a way to operate better?” Drown said. “I don’t know. We don’t want to presuppose what that answer is. Let the assessment figure that out.”

The Castle-Getty link, suggested during an advisory committee meeting, doesn’t mean the entire operation would be handed over to Getty, Drown said. Besides the Castle’s 22,000 artifacts, State Parks looks after items not found in a fine art museum, including an 80-year-old pool and heritage plant species. Plus, it provides public access mandated by a 1957 Deed of Gift from the Hearst family.

The Castle, which is already an accredited museum, has a $60 million backlog of artifact conservation needs. Some of those needs will be met by $10 million in state bond funds recently designated to help pay for repairing the red tile roof on the 60,645-square-foot La Casa Grande main house and repairing the iconic, 95-by-104-foot outdoor Neptune Pool.

Stephen Hearst, Hearst Corp. vice president and great-grandson of W.R. Hearst, said he’s not yet sure how he feels about the commission’s suggestion. At first blush, he said, it does not appear to violate requirements of the Deed of Gift, which says the state will own the estate.

Hearst said he was in Sacramento last week, “roaming the capital, thanking the people who helped get the $10 million for the huge roof and pool projects.” His sense is “there’s a high level of commitment” in state government to keeping the Castle open for as many people as possible to visit and enjoy.

Hoyt Fields, Hearst Castle museum director, said it already partners with the Getty, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and other museums.

The Castle loaned three dozen art pieces and artifacts to a 2008 LACMA show entitled “Hearst, the Collector.” Getty conservators donated conservation work in exchange for the loan of a painting by Duccio of the Virgin Mary and Child, perhaps the most valuable piece of art in the Castle’s collection.

“The Getty does know artwork,” said Nick Franco, State Parks district superintendent, “and that’s why we partner with them. They’re extremely well funded, with many billions of dollars in endowments.”

But State Parks does “certainly operate well and serve the public well,” he added. “And isn’t that the point of parks … taking California’s heritage, inspiring the people of the state, and protecting that heritage for future generations?”

If that heritage were to be held in private hands (nonprofit or for profit) Franco said, “there’s always a risk of it being blocked off to public use.”

Hearst Castle is “not just a museum in a new building,” said Sue Rausch of Friends of Hearst Castle. “It’s the entire estate.”

Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, a former county supervisor and a member of the Little Hoover Commission, was not available for comment Monday. Getty officials did not return requests for comment Monday afternoon.

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