Lunching with a guy named Lefty at the Bristol Bar and Grill is as it should be: picaresque. And maybe a little ironic, when the Lefty in question is neither a boxer nor a baseball player but a rogue museum director named Sebastian (Lefty) Adler.
At 53, this Lefty strikes the gruff grace notes of a retired prizefighter more than the proper chords of an arts executive. Looking fit and filled out, vaguely dangerous behind Porsche sunglasses, he cheerily greets the Bristol's maitre d' like Jack Dempsey on the town. He sits down at "his" table, lights the first in a chain of cigarettes, orders "the sauvignon blanc" and talks.
His voice a bruised baritone, he fancies the future of San Diego's downtown, a mismatch of under-occupied office towers, languishing old theaters, few residents and streets peopled mainly by drifters/beggars and white-collar commuters. Its future is being staked on a number of ambitious redevelopment projects.
Clearly, Adler figures to be a big part of all that, thanks to the much-vaunted San Diego Art Center he plans to direct. Never mind that he has, one way or another, been hotfooted out of the last two museums he ran--most recently the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, where his unorthodoxy led to his unseating in 1982. Specifically, the La Jolla museum board questioned his ethics in allegedly receiving gifts and collecting works from artists he had exhibited and in failing to accredit the museum with the American Assn. of Museums.
Adler intends to live all that down. After all, he points out, his 10 years at the museum left it with a permanent collection, mainly of American Minimalist art of the '60s and '70s, valued at about $6 million--up from $500,000 at the start of his reign. He also brought the museum a vanguard reputation for spotlighting trends in design and architecture, even though his only art degree is from Winona State University in Minnesota.
"I never had a happy day there (La Jolla)," he admits now, adding that he and his wife chose to remain in La Jolla only to maintain a stable school situation for their two daughters. "Every purchase I made was a struggle with the board. But I was building a collection of consequence--not just names and in-and-out fads.
"Probably I got myself in trouble as soon as I came here in 1973, when I was saying that the museum belongs downtown, in the city. That kind of attitude was one of my problems in La Jolla. I'm not a yes-man, three-piece, vichyssoise museum director. I mean, it's a long way from Clark Street in Chicago, where I come from, to here."
If Adler's style was autocratic and abrasive and short on decorum, and if he made enemies out of the smoother art pros who worked for him, none seemed to question Lefty's practical skills in the aesthetic ring. Mainly, he never lost the faith and support of La Jolla arts patron Danah Fayman, and it is she--along with a core of moneyed stalwarts--who so far bankrolls the Art Center plan and the saga of Adler redux.
"I was destroyed," he conced when asked about the aftermath of his firing from La Jolla. "Did I feel bitter? No. Did I feel stupid? Yes. I was thinking of actually going into the foreign service as some sort of cultural attache, forgetting it all--you know, my life is over. The night I was fired, Danah said, 'The hell with 'em; we'll go downtown ourselves.' That was my only hope."
If they get their way, in October of 1986 their San Diego Art Center will open in the redecorated, redesigned, expanded shell of the old Balboa Theatre, at a cost of about $6 million to $8 million, all of it tucked into the eastern wing of the soon-to-open Horton Plaza shopping center. With Adler already as its director and New York's Richard Weinstein redesigning, the planned museum will dominate as much as 90,000 square feet of mixed-use retail, gallery, performance and restaurant space.
Specialties of the house will be exhibitions on design and architecture, Lefty's aesthetic chefs-d'oeuvre, alternating with ambitious modern art displays. Adler plans to canvas major collections here and abroad, building a permanent collection of Minimalist, Abstract and Expressionist art featuring about three important works from each artist represented.
Beyond the local impact of all this are more regional implications. What with Count Panza looking to lend more and more of his fabled modern art collection to Southern California museums, the new presence of the Art Center as well as the established presence of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art could impact quite competitively, if not cooperatively, on the likes of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.
And speaking of La Jolla, it tops the list of setbacks to the Art Center plan. With almost astonishing irony, the La Jolla museum may decide to heed, belatedly, Adler's advice and focus its expansion plans on a new bayside site downtown, mere blocks from the San Diego Art Center. Adler grimaces at that one; he is understandably concerned that there's not room enough, support enough, for two modern art museums so close to each other.
More setbacks: The Art Center's curator-designate Jack Taylor, innovative display-shaper with the Milwaukee Art Museum, expert in New York Abstract Expressionism and a 20-year friend of Adler, died suddenly last December, of lingering ailments, while researching an Art Center show. And more recently, the mighty Nederlander theater chain has expressed an interest in turning the Balboa into a legit theater and leasing it for road shows.
"Where," says Adler, rolling his eyes, "were these people a year ago, when we set our sights on downtown and the Balboa?"
Then again, the central location of the Art Center and Horton Plaza plays promisingly in any possible scenario. If such a meld of commerce and culture doesn't pitch downtown well into its redevelopment renaissance, it's hard to imagine what will. Adler figures that Horton Plaza needs a major drawing-card cultural center, and the San Diego Art Center needs a Horton Plaza. The symbiosis extends, of course, to the money situation. Fayman and company can get a project like this off the ground, but they cannot build Adler's Xanadu by themselves.
And so, if the San Diego City Council approves the plans for turning the Balboa into the Art Center, the Center City Development Corp. will assist in acquiring the property from its current owners, then start rounding up an estimated $2 million in public subsidies, while Adler, Fayman, et al will launch their big fund-raising effort.
Pending all that, developer Chris Mortenson has agreed to develop an additional Art Center annex along 4th Avenue. Air rights are being negotiated with Horton Plaza developer Ernest Hahn. By the time the cement dries, Adler plans to have his dream museum flanking most of 4th Avenue between Broadway and D Street. The way he talks, the Vision of a Great Downtown is at stake here, and if Lefty Adler--with his flair for illuminating urban architecture--can't pull it off, then who?
"The city," he says, "will wind up getting a $60-million museum for only a few million."
Adler talks in confidentialities, in backstage whispers that carry the hint of genuine intrigue, yet always with a sense of humor, of not taking life all that seriously. It defuses any hint of paranoia he may exhibit toward the local cultural Establishment. Certainly, he has a way of rallying support. Art and architecture critics who witnessed only the exhibited fruits of his tenure at the La Jolla museum--and not his reputedly abrasive, autocratic administrative habits--praised his vision. So do those who are likewise caught up in San Diego's downtown redevelopment drive.
Art Skolnick, the young urban planning specialist who heads the Gaslamp Quarter--a quaint historical district bordering on Horton Plaza--calls Adler "one of the two or three visionaries you find in any city. If only a small percentage of his ideas ever get off the ground, it helps."
Others are only doubtful.
"Is Lefty the guy that's really gonna be able to pull this off?" asks Steven Brezzo, a former curator--under Adler--at the La Jolla museum and now director of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. "You really need a politically astute, sensitive type. Sure, Lefty's been around and people know his style, and he's got a lot of friends, but I don't see anybody coming through financially yet."
As for a $2-million public subsidy for the Art Center, "That's gonna be hard to get," Brezzo said. "Museum subsidies have all been cut, so before you start funding new projects, let them earn their way like we do. Suddenly--a $2-million windfall for a new museum? I don't know about that. It's gonna be a lot more controversial than people expect."
Adler knows this, and Adler is determined. He is walking north along 4th Avenue, surveying the Balboa and the thickening shell of the Horton Plaza construction as he speaks. This is it, Lefty's new turf for what could be his last stand--the downtown center he wants to turn into a Champs Elysees, planting trees and arches from the Plaza due east on Broadway, engineering a clear view all the way to the harbor, transforming a nondescript four-lane thoroughfare into un grand boulevard.
If it's all a pipe dream, Adler luxuriates in its smoke. He also wears his fatalism at a rakish angle. "None of my family seems to live past 60," he says. He claims its now or never to do things the way he wants, compromising nothing, determined to wake up the lulled, apathetic public to its art treasures and potential. He speaks excitedly of public sculpture, anticipating the works by Loren Madsen, Judy Pfaff and Peter Alexander that Horton Plaza will unveil at its August opening.
When Art Center renovation begins at the Balboa, Adler plans to have the Chicano Park painters adorn the wooden construction wall with Latino murals. He leads a reporter briskly over to "Excalibur," Beverly Pepper's steel-wedge sculpture that juts upward from the courtyard of the Federal Building. He points indignantly to where the work is rusting, corroding at its seams. He snorts in righteous derision at the metal fence that has kept children from playing on the sculpture's slopes, as Pepper had intended. Making a difference in this town's artscape, he explains, must be a labor of love--not ambition or politics.
"Everybody thinks Danah is so rich," he says. "She's not so rich. She took out a second mortgage on her house to bankroll the center. You think any of us are doing all this for the money?"
Lefty Adler is, obviously or not, left-handed. He chose to be called Lefty in 1951, while serving in the Air Force, where a first name like Sebastian proved a source of endless ridicule. He started his own museum--if one can call it that--when he was 27, in Worthington, Minn., a town of about 800 people. He did it, he recalls, with the backing of "a banker whose name I forget and the couple who owned the local phone company." He laughs at the memory.
"I hung art in the lobby of the bank, then in the gym lobby of the high school. I rented shows from the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In those days they had no idea--they didn't check you out like they do now. Every day I'd go up early in the morning--four kids and myself--and hang the show. Then every day at 4 o'clock I'd take it down because they had basketball games in the gym, and the art would have been mashed by the jocks. I didn't know a damn thing about museums."
But he made a difference in Worthington--enough to merit a write-up in the Minneapolis newspapers. Soon, Adler moved on to Sioux Falls, S.D., as founding director of the city's first art center. He claims to have brought Sioux Falls its first Smithsonian museum shows. From there Adler moved on to the Wichita Art Museum, presiding over "one of the greatest collections of 19th- and 20th-Century American art in the Midwest." But friction with the museum board--he won't detail it--led to his firing in 1965, then his rehiring. Then he quit to head the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum.
By 1972 he had been asked to resign from the Houston museum, mainly because of a controversial show that has become something of a grotesque legend. Of its 10 exhibits, one was called "New York City Animal Levels," its wire cages filled with young cockroaches, kittens, pigeons, rats and mice.
"The idea was that as the animals grew, their odor would become stronger," said Adler. "You'd get an experience of the inner city that most museumgoers never get." But rats escaped into the crowd on opening night, and as the days progressed, the stench grew unbearable as the animals began killing each other. The Houston community was neither amused nor understanding. Yet Adler still defends the show as indicative of his commitment to addressing urban questions. And he turns the tables on those who criticized him for failing to adequately serve the community and offer educational programs while at the La Jolla museum.
"No, I won't offer the kind of 'educational programs' they mean," he retorts. "Instead of running kids through a museum just to please the attendance figures or the corporations, I want the school kids to come on three trips a year--not just run 'em through and run 'em off. What are you doing for one day in a child's life running him through an art museum? What does it do for the kid?
"I don't want housewives conducting tours, I want art students teaching the tours. I want to take the black-district kids through the museum--then the Latin, then the Oriental districts. What do they need from a museum? What do these communities really want?"
Philosophical, and angry, and still making waves in San Diego, Lefty Adler heads along Broadway, back to the Art Center's office space at the Columbia Center. He stops to light another cigarette against the wind, and a resigned smile breaks handsomely across his face.
"It always amazes me," he says. "I'm good enough to build the museums up, but then I'm out. I'm not a fly-in-the-night guy either--10 years in La Jolla, the years in Houston. But this town is changing. And I'm not giving up."