He helped bring art to schoolchildren. He welcomed new ideas, often seeking out artists of different styles.
After 17 years as director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, however, John Outterbridge says it's time to move on.
Though longtime friends and admirers praise his accomplishments, Outterbridge says his retirement this month is tinged with a sense of frustration.
"We never reached our full potential," Outterbridge, 59, said. "We need a laboratory. (Now) we work on the floor with students when they come, because we don't have proper desks."
More than 20,000 visitors of all ages pass through the 2,500-square-foot center annually.
Its $250,000 city-funded budget leaves little room for amenities, including desks for the more than 500 schoolchildren who visit every month during the school year to learn about different types of art and try their hand at painting. The center consists of central gallery space used to display the works of local and foreign artists, plus four wings that include a permanent drum collection, storage and an office area.
Plans to improve the center--which include expanded gallery space, a new theater and accommodations for an artists exchange program--have yet to make it off the drawing board.
Some ardent supporters question the city's commitment to the center, noting that the roof still leaks more than 20 years after an initial expansion plan was drafted.
But Outterbridge, community leaders and preservationists are now hopeful that plans for a "cultural crescent," a crescent-shaped zone stretching from the arts center to the historic Watts train depot on 103rd Street, will provide a new home for one of the city's preeminent cultural sites.
Outterbridge, who is building an art studio for himself at Slauson Avenue and Main Street, says the crescent would be key to the artist exchange program he envisions.
"We need to be able to house very gifted people," Outterbridge said. "We need to be able to beckon the very talented people. We need an open invitation to growth."
Many are sad to see Outterbridge depart the Watts Arts Center. Education coordinator Rochelle Nicholas-Booth, who is serving as director until a successor is chosen, described Outterbridge as a "charismatic individual who kept a certain momentum and excitement going."
"John is able to communicate with such a diversity of people, from the arts profession to the international visitor to the little lady across the street to the little child," Nicholas-Booth said. "He has a very even-keeled temperament. He always found the positive, always upheld the creative spirit that could occur at any given moment."
Outterbridge said he will continue to be involved with the center, even as he devotes more time to his studio and an upcoming solo exhibition at the Afro-American Museum in Exposition Park.
"This is the kind of thing that is not easy to leave," Outterbridge said. "It is a source of education and a way for me to share cultural diversity."