SAN DIEGO — 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.