Quantcast

La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art and its zany director

The art of being Lefty Adler

Before Adler arrived, the museum had an annual operating budget of less than a quarter million dollars. Now it’s about $1.1 million.
  • Before Adler arrived, the museum had an annual operating budget of less than a quarter million dollars. Now it’s about $1.1 million.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

Even by Texas standards it was a bold and daring exhibition of contemporary art. And while it had a lot to do with the firing of Lefty Adler from his job as director of the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum, it still ranks as one of the most exciting shows he’s ever assembled.

“He said he had bribed a bellboy to open the Lichtensteins' room and then packed up all their clothes.”

“He said he had bribed a bellboy to open the Lichtensteins' room and then packed up all their clothes.”

It was called simply “10,” and that many separate works of art composed the maiden exhibit in the museum’s brand-new building in the spring of 1972. Within a year, the shock waves created by the controversial exhibition would carry Adler here to La Jolla, to take over as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

"The museum is, as one former curator put it, “a perfect mirror of La Jolla”: plenty of Warhols (Gucci), Christos (Mercedes), Lewitts (Calvin Klein), and Mangolds (Perrier).

"The museum is, as one former curator put it, “a perfect mirror of La Jolla”: plenty of Warhols (Gucci), Christos (Mercedes), Lewitts (Calvin Klein), and Mangolds (Perrier).

On “10" he had risked much of what he had — his reputation, his job — in an effort to show the world what artists were creating right then, in the swirling tailwind of the Sixties. And despite the fact that the exhibition eventually was a prime factor in the loss of his job, it certainly didn’t hurt his reputation.

Adler is to museum directing what modem art is to traditional art; insurgent, iconoclastic, contradictory, erratic.

Adler is to museum directing what modem art is to traditional art; insurgent, iconoclastic, contradictory, erratic.

The night of the opening, March 20, the black-tie crowd looked up to see one of the works floating in the black sky overhead. Michael Snow, now a well-known artist, utilized the grid of lights on the side of the Goodyear blimp for “pure color-field composition.” At night the blimp itself was nearly invisible, and the rectangular grid appeared to slide alone through the blackness. During the course of the exhibition (which lasted almost three months), the blimp buzzed the skies periodically, carrying Snow’s ever-changing electronic color-field compositions.

Adler was miffed by allusions in the Union story to his “reputed underhanded dealings with casino boss Alan Glick.”

Adler was miffed by allusions in the Union story to his “reputed underhanded dealings with casino boss Alan Glick.”

Outside on the night of the opening, across the street from the museum on an empty lot, guests witnessed Vera Simons's wave machine. A one-hundred-foot trough was dug five feet wide and five feet deep, lined with plastic and filled with water. A giant paddle pushed by a motor was supposed to create a big wave which, in theory, would travel down the trough and break at the far end on a sloping shore. In practice it didn’t work as well as it did on paper, and before too long, spring rains flooded it and caved in the sides.

Inside the museum, whose construction in the shape of a huge trapezoid Adler had overseen, opening-night guests were treated to Bill Wegman’s exhibit of video art, a form that was newly born and later carried into importance by Wegman and others. There was a work by Newton Harrison, entitled Survival Piece Number Six, which was a portable indoor farm. In giant planter boxes filled with artificial soil and bathed in artificial light, a crop of fruits and vegetables was planted and nourished. Eventually, people who came to the museum were treated to a small salad made from the artwork.

But the piece that most rattled conservative Houston was Ellen Van Fleet’s New York City Animal Levels. It consisted of rows of wire cages stacked from floor to ceiling on both sides of a small walkway. Visitors passing through saw the hierarchy of living animals and insects dependent on man in an urban culture. Qn the bottom were the cockroaches, then came the mice, then rats, cats, and on top, pigeons. Unfortunately, the cages weren't built all that well, and the rats escaped into the crowd opening night, causing much screaming among the ladies and stimulating a lot of anger. As the weeks passed, the exhibit stunk up the whole museum, and the rats occasionally broke out and were eaten by the cats; the cats in turn broke out and ate the pigeons. The cats came down with pneumonia due to the air conditioning and the virus-carrying crowds, and they started dying. The exhibit was both traumatic and dramatic, and most of the upper-class Houston crowd hated it. (This is art?!) Adler and the exhibit were sharply criticized, and the new museum got off on a bad footing. Within a year he was fired, and within weeks of his firing he accepted the job at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.

Adler: I could put on exhibitions here, every month, that would just shock San Diego right out of its gourd. You know what happens when you do that? People just don’t come back. They don't have to. You freeze their brains. Showing tough ideas, showing soft ideas, and being popular are three different things. I think there’s a danger in this country of populism creeping into some museums, that some people have the notion that if they get thousands and thousands of people running into a museum/that art is for everyone. Art is an elitist movement, always has been, it’s not for everyone. . . . But you have to be careful. You don’t want to freeze people’s brains. Shock? What is that? It comes and it goes, pretty soon, I mean if you look at all the violent crime today, people used to be shocked by it, and now they sit and eat their breakfast and watch the latest violent crime on television and they’re not shocked at all. You can't really shock people anymore.

Sebastian (Lefty) Adler, 49, who took over as director of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in 1973 and is in large part responsible for making it and its collection a vaunted repository of post-1950 art, contradicts the stereotype of a sophisticated museum director in the same way that modernism contradicted the common view of what art was. He can be a shocking individual, one day ebullient and gregarious, the next day boorish, hostile, irrational. He is constantly changing, moving, thinking, dealing. He's on a zigzag route to somewhere, a man with a strange and irrepressible destiny. If the proverbial museum director wears three-piece suits, speaks measuredly and affectedly, displays several parchments on the paneled walls of his book-lined office, and has been tamed since childhood by art’s refined and esoteric stratosphere. Lefty Adler is at least unproverbial. But he’s much more than that, and due mainly to his presence, the La Jolla Museum has come to be regarded in both the U.S. and Europe as an important force and reputable window for contemporary art. And yet it’s being run by a scrappy little Hungarian immigrant’s son who oftentimes doesn’t wear shoes around the office.

His mother was a scrubwoman, his father was a milkman, and Adler grew up tough on the streets of Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. He’s been an unemployed no-account, a door-to-door magazine salesman, a factory worker, and he’s scoured his share of toilets. He failed his college entrance exams but was allowed in anyway. He never did get his master’s degree, and never has owned more than two suits. One sees no books in his spacious office overlooking the Pacific. Some former employees of his call him a con artist; some people in the art business think he’s a genius. He makes close to $50,000 a year and lives with his wife in a beautiful, art-filled home on Nautilus Street in La Jolla. Like the art he deals with, he is constantly reacting to his circumstances directly, bluntly; in the early days it was not unheard of for him to tell rich La Jolla socialites to fuck off. Among the fraternity of museum directors, the adjective most often used to describe Adler is “outrageous.” He admits to being insecure, irascible, temperamental, and capricious. “If I’m mean I'm mean,” he shrugs. “If I'm awful I’m awful. I can’t change me.” His opinions and decisions, highly valued by the museum’s board of trustees, are largely responsible for transforming its measly half-million-dollar mishmash collection into a respectable $ 11 million cache in about five years. His tastes and opinions prevail; they are final, unassailable, inarguable. This has led to an exodus of talent from his curatorial staff and created a pool of articulate and credible critics. “Everything everybody says about Lefty is true,” comments one longtime associate. Adler is to museum directing what modem art is to traditional art; insurgent, iconoclastic, contradictory, erratic. And any accurate picture of Lefty Adler must be drawn in the abstract.

Adler: The other day you said to me, ‘Some people say you're not as tough with shows as you used to be.’ And they’re right. And I’ve got to do something about that.

How has that happened?

To be honest, when I came the museum had a very limited audience, and I had to get money, that damn little cockroach that haunts all of us. And in order to get money [for the museum], I had to soften things up a bit.

Exhibits that were a little more palatable?

Well, no. It's confusing because what I’m saying I did was correct. But I concentrated on that [getting money]. And I spent a lot of energy, believe me, a lot of energy, to get this place turned around building-wise, facility-wise. There was no air conditioning even; it was like a glorified dying country club hippie pad.

Before Adler arrived, the museum had an annual operating budget of less than a quarter million dollars (now it’s about $1.1 million); its collection contained works from many different periods, none of it exceptionally valuable; and it was sorely in need of renovation. But some of Adler’s early exhibits were every bit as brash as the one he put together in Houston. One in particular, called “Earth: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral,” induced a similar reaction from trustees and the public. It included a piece by Newton Harrison that involved three live ducks placed in a small garden in the courtyard of the museum. Thousands of snails were brought in from the surrounding area for the ducks to feed on, and the piece was supposed to grow and change as the life cycle of the ducks and snails was played out, and at the end, like the farm piece in Houston, the spectators were supposed to eat the snails. It didn’t work out that way. The courtyard became extremely ugly and smelly, a maintenance man resigned over it (“I wasn’t hired to clean up duck shit!”), the ducks devoured all the snails, and it garnered a lot of criticism. Another exhibit dealt with anti-materialism and featured an artist, Barry LeVa, doing a piece called Velocity Run. At two in the morning, after setting up stereophonic microphones and recording equipment, LeVa ran at top speed and smashed into two walls at the museum. He ran back and forth for as long as he could, colliding with the walls and leaving blood there, getting slower and slower, until he couldn’t do it anymore. To view the piece the public came into the room, inspected the blood and body grease on the stark-white walls, and listened to the tape played through speakers set at each end of the room. At this time, art was still capable of truly shocking people, and Adler quickly inherited some of the hostility staid La Jolla held for the museum. So it’s not surprising that soon after he hit town, he was ready to leave. For a while there, it seemed that every time he went somewhere socially, people criticized him and the museum.

Adler: One of the difficult times I had in this community was partly mine, and partly being from Chicago. In terms of mine, / didn't like it. Several people have said that I'm abrasive, I used strong language. . . . But being involved in the Sixties the way I was/it goes back to an old political psych, course I had/1 hadn't planned to stay here/if it wasn't for my wife and children I'd have probably left within two years. Because quite often/I recall one time I went to a home and a woman came up to me and she said, “You're Lefty Adler.’ I said, ‘That's right.’ And she said, ‘You know, we don’t need you here, and we don’t need that museum. And if you stay here you better figure out what we need and what we want. And it’s not your modern art crap.' I remember I started using charged vocabulary that day I said/I don’t even use it anymore// said, ’Why don’t you eff-off?’ Because going back to the Sixties mentality and where I was/and this course I took/if you reach a person who’s a philistine, and you can’t communicate with them, the only thing you have left is charged language and walk away. Because you have nothing to talk about, except words, which mean nothing.

And the other thing I have, I guess I’m not a suave, polished-type person, never will be, and I’m kinda glad for that, growing up in Chicago, and I always feel very comfortable when I'm in Chicago, 'cause there’s no fooling around. Growing up in a city with a man like Daley, a city known for its factories and cattle and immigrants, you have to be tough. I don't know that I'm that tough, but Chicago gave me a tremendous sense of survival. And conviction. And doing something. And not feeling sorry for myself.

So he stayed. And learned how to survive in the quaint atmosphere on the hills overlooking the placid blues and greens of the seascape in La Jolla. There’s no more blood and grease on the walls, no more duck manure in the courtyard, no more dead cats in wire cages. One must survive before one can do something. And there are those who say that Adler now puts together exhibits which have more to do with stroking people in the art business — dealers, collectors, trustees, money sources — than with the quality of the artwork, or its importance to contemporary art. There are also those who say that in order for him to build his considerable reputation, Adler has had to forsake the notion of contemporary art being the art of today, now. Instead, he has had to’’plunge headlong into the Sixties” and concentrate on exhibiting and buying the works of artists who are “safe,” accepted as preeminent in their media, and certified by the art world as worthy of acclaim. In that way the museum is, as one former curator put it, “a perfect mirror of La Jolla”: plenty of Warhols (Gucci), Christos (Mercedes), Lewitts (Calvin Klein), and Mangolds (Perrier). But the experimental, the uncertified, the unknown — they are the exception. It is a fact that, unlike the old days, when Adler combed artists’ lofts in search of undiscovered treasures, he now doesn’t have the time for that, and most of his contact with available art is solely through dealers and collectors. It is also inconceivable now that Adler would spend the time and money assembling a show of the scale and nature of “10,” featuring little-known artists. The dictates of survival in La Jolla wouldn’t allow it.

Of major concern now to Adler is a big exhibit of Italian industrial design — everything from automobiles to furniture to pocket calculators. It is an idea that has been evolving in his mind for several years, and one which he’s been actively pursuing for the last three years. It is almost the converse of “10” in concept and subject matter, and his all-out pursuit of that exhibition clearly exposes a fundamental change in Adler’s aesthetic priorities. It’s scheduled to open at the museum in September, 1982, the biggest and, at a cost of half a million dollars, the most expensive exhibition he’s ever assembled. Those who believe that Adler’s primary qualification for his job is his ability to manipulate and negotiate shrewdly to obtain the art that he wants need only look at how the project is moving to confirm their belief.

Adler: The Italian show has been a real stomach cruncher. Architecture to me is like fantastic sculpture when it’s good. When it's afterbirth/I mean I come out of a city like Chicago, how can you expect me not to be involved in architecture, design, city planning? So, always being involved in that, I began to realize the Italians were the most important designers after the Scandinavians. . . . Latin people are still attuned to the earth. Anglos aren’t: I don’t know whether it’s their hard winters, or what it is. But the thing about Latin countries, you have the very rich and the very poor, and a few in between. So what you have, you have brilliant designers and architects, but who do they build for? They then get into automobiles, clothes, radios, televisions. ... So then I had this long, arduous trip to make.

Where?

To get where I am with Italy. So, like a dummy, I go trotting off to Washington to the Italian embassy.

When was this?

Two years ago. To meet the cultural attache. Well, I found out the cultural attache wasn’t really the cultural attache.

You got into the bureaucracy?

Uhm-hmm, yeah, masturbation. So they sent me to New York, which took another trip 'cause I didn't have time nor money to return.

Why New York?

’Cause the real cultural attache was in New York. So back to the consulate I go — rappapo, rappatoe, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, round and round. ’No money? Oh, interesting idea, but you don’t understand Italy.’ It was like walking into a brick wall, like the Garabedian painting in the museum of the man and the brick wall. Well, I have a lady who’s very' tough, very terrific, a sculptress by the name of Beverly Pepper, who lives in Rome. So now, by God, if anybody knows Italy/I’m going to talk to Beverly. Well, wait, then they gave me names, that’s what it was, so I made another stupid, horrendous error. I went to the foreign office in L.A., the foreign trade center. That was like going in through mashed potatoes. The man was so impressed with telling me about all the parties he was going to and all the important people he knew that I might as well have walked through mashed potatoes. So I went around and around/ well one thing I do have, and that’s got me through college without a high school education/is determination. . .

Lefty Adler moved out of his parents’ home at the age of thirteen and went to live with his brother Jake and Jake’s wife. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and eventually got a job at the Hammond Organ factory, installing organ pipes. Though art always had an allure for him, he could only bring himself to the Chicago Art Institute twice before he joined the Air Force at eighteen. Both times he didn’t make it past the lobby, and ended up going to the movies instead. (He loves to tell this story, as his staff will attest.) “One time I got as far as the steps, and there were all these well-dressed people/I’m scared to death. What am I gonna do? They’ll see me, look at me, and I’ll look just like where I came from: Hunky town. So, uh, that’s h-u-n-k-y.’’

In 1951, on his brother’s advice, he joined the Air Force to avoid being “cannon fodder” for the Army, which was gobbling up men to fight the war in Korea. Luckily, he was sent to Europe. After the service, he really had no ambition to go to college. He figured he’d come back, find a wife, raise a family, and work in the factories. But his brother encouraged him to go to college by insulting him and impugning his academic abilities, so just to show Jake he could do it Adler enrolled at Winona State College in Minnesota. He’d gotten his high school diploma through a GED test in the service, and although he says he flunked the college entrance exams, the dean at Winona let him in anyway. He says he wasn’t smart enough to study architecture, his first choice, so he went into an art history curriculum. He married Janet, the woman he’s been wed to for twenty-four years, and eventually found himself $9000 in debt with two kids while struggling through graduate school at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. So he dropped out of school again and they moved to Worthington, in southwestern Minnesota, to teach high school and junior college art. He started a high school art club which eventually became the Nobles County Art Center, and exhibited small shows on loan from the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modem Art in New York. He lugged the paintings around in the back of a beat-up Chevy. His friends at those institutions tell him now that if they’d known what a shoe-string operation it was, he’d never have gotten the artworks. The Minneapolis newspapers wrote him up, and then he got a call from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to come open the first art center in the state. He moved.

Adler: So I talked to Beverly Pepper, who lives outside of Rome. I told you about her.

Did you go to Italy?

Well, I’d seen Beverly at a party and she’s . . . for a woman sculptor to do as well as she did, I just love her. She can stand on a scaffold/’So goddamn you, you dirty bastards! Move that thing!’ She did the big piece downtown. The way she moved things around, first -

The Excalibur at the federal courthouse?

That’s Beverly’s piece. . .So anyway,! was at a party with her in New York, and I said. Goddamn, Beverly'/well no, first, now the next mistake I made, I got names and things, so the first stupid/I usually try to reach people. I’m one of these, there’s nothing / hate more than somebody who walks in on me unannounced/they’re here and voila! Drop your pants. That's rude. Long before I went to Europe or anywhere I make all my/I have all my/I’m very /I’m a Virgo. So you know, every hour's gotta be accounted. . . . Anyhow, I got all these names of people in Italy. I tried to reach these people and couldn't. Professors, designers, architects/somebody just told me recently, ‘You know, Adler, you got a thing about peeing on fires. While you're peeing on small fires, the whole forest is burning down.’ A trustee told me that yesterday. Marvelous advice. Because I was peeing on the fire. I was in such a state of panic and so desperate, even though I couldn’t reach them, I scrounged up enough money for an airline ticket and I was determined to do it. There was no stopping me. . . . Got there, hell, none of ’em were there, they were all in the States! Taught me a lesson about peeing on fires. ... So in a sense it was a waste of my time, except that Jose' Tasende was there and he saved me, ’cause at the time I couldn't even say arrivederci. So Jose' sort of salvaged me. It was a waste of time and money. Oh, except for a great man, Manzu, who made this cardinal [a religious figure] which I thought would please San Diego, and nobody would help me buy it so I had to sell it back to Jose'.

Jose Tasende is an art dealer who owns a gallery practically next door to the museum on Prospect Street. Giacomo Manzu is an Italian sculptor most noted for his bronze casts, which roughly form a link between classical sculpture and post-impressionist abstraction. The nine-foot-tall cardinal, which stands today in front of the museum, was a $50,000 project commissioned by Adler and is one of the two works rejected by the museum's acquisitions committee after Adler’s recommendation of purchase. Many people have been puzzled by such a work being displayed in front of a museum of contemporary art, because the original casts for the cardinal series were made more than thirty years ago. For some of Adler’s former curators (roughly eight since 1973), the Manzu cardinal incident is proof that the director does not know his art history, and that motives other than the aesthetic value of the art figure in his exhibition choices. “Manzu is like fourth- or fifth-rate,” says one former curator, perhaps exaggerating a bit. “It just shows how little he really knows about art. For the museum in ’79 to commission a new cast of a Manzu cardinal is the height of stupidity.”

Of course, nearly everything in the world of art and aesthetics is debatable, and while it’s true that Adler thinks Manzu is great, it’s also true that he had something more in mind when he decided to put it in front of the museum. The price tag: $50,000.

Adler: Which was a gift, because you know what that piece is worth? It’s worth over a hundred thousand. Jose is buying it from me to save my face with Manzu because Manzu gave it to me at cost.

Well, you paid for it, didn’t you?

No. Couldn't get anybody to help me. Nobody was interested in buying it, that’s what’s interesting. You know the little foxes that bite at your heels? Where are they to help get a great piece like that? That’s a classic, that’s not contemporary at all. Cardinals are the greatest works he ever made. Talking about raising money and being honest! I thought if I got the cardinal, these people that swiped at me, like these people in the La Jolla Light recently, the philistines, they would like it. ’Cause that’s classical sculpture, that’s transitional. Manzu is sort of that sculptor that's between abstract and traditional, whatever that means. You know, I never understood those terms either, ’cause everything to me is abstract - that car is abstract. ... So Jose saved me with the cardinal/call it Adler's folly. All these people that talk about traditional art don’t even know what the hell they’re talking about, ’cause there’s a great classic traditional piece. So I was very embarrassed.

So was that your bone to be thrown to people who have trouble with contemporary art?

No, I was trying to rebuild the museum. And maybe it was; maybe I’m not being honest with myself. I thought they would like this and / could get some input from them for the museum in money and support. It was a bone /maybe it wasn’t. We all get trapped in our own pursuits for peeing on fires. . . .

Mickey Gribin, a board trustee who was on the acquisitions committee at the time, says, “Throwing a bone isn’t worth buying a piece of art for the collection. He may have ended up achieving what at first blush was a reasonable pacifier, but the piece is not in my judgment what should be put forward as contemporary art.” Gribin has been a great supporter of Adler’s and has acted as something of a translator for what the director wants to say to the board of trustees. But since Gribin is also a self-appointed mediator of sorts, he’s heard from museum employees all the horror stories about how hard it is to work for Adler. “You don’t discount those things,” acknowledges Gribin. "That is an ongoing problem. But sizable staff turnover is not untrue of other museums of its size. There’s a grate between the position of the director and the needs of the curatorial staff for upward mobility. . . . There’ve been some very talented and creative people in there, but where do they go once they’ve reached that level in the museum? And unfortunately, there is no ‘fair.’ It comes down to one person’s idea of what's equitable. And for now and the foreseeable future, it’s up to Lefty. . . . There’s no doubt he’s got an ego — most of us do. If you don’t you’re pretty much a nonentity.”

Adler himself is the first to admit that he’s insecure. “I am damn scared, damn insecure,” he says, “but the day I stop running scared it’s over. By luck and several other things, I got into a museum that has a lot of influence — not power, mind you, I hate the word — influence. And 1 feel damn scared ’cause who am I? Just a little schlepper from Chicago.” This insecurity may account for the nearly universal perception of the ousted curators that one reason for their firing or resignation was that Adler felt threatened by their success, their professional competence. And upon examination, the experiences of the curators form a remarkable pattern.

Steven Brezzo, director of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park (arguably in competition with the La Jolla Museum), was a curator under Adler between 1974 and 1976. His tenure there was about as long as that of others who followed: Richard Armstrong, Christopher Knight, and, ousted two weeks ago, Martha Winans. (One curator, Larry Urrutia, lasted less than three weeks.) Brezzo left because he found the working conditions “incompatible with what I thought was sound management and good interpersonal relationships.” Another former curator says the same thing less politely: “I think Lefty is a seriously disturbed individual. . .who will say anything to get what he wants. And he knows almost nothing about art.... He asked me one day whether the Barbizon School came before or after impressionism. I was flabbergasted.” Brezzo says that Adler “frequently would espouse trends based more on personal friendships” than on actual artistic movements. And Martha Winans comments that “very few shows are done because they’re solely good art. He’s just got so many deals going, so many promises. . .” The current — and only — curator is Bob McDonald, who came to La Jolla from the University Art Museum in Berkeley. He speaks very carefully, as do all the other employees now at the museum. “The job (of curator] could be very satisfying,” McDonald says. Is it? McDonald pauses. “It has its satisfactions.” In the nearly two years since McDonald started working for Adler, he has yet to organize an exhibition of his own, which is considered one of the primary jobs of a museum curator. Adler initiates, negotiates, and/or installs nearly every exhibit in the museum. He hires curators to fill in his weaknesses: mainly the writing of exhibit catalogues and the scholarly research that entails. Adler admits not being able to write well, and since coming to La Jolla he’s never researched and written a catalogue for an artist or an exhibition, which is almost unheard of for a museum director. (They usually come up through the curatorial ranks.)

Adler’s sense of humor seems, well, enigmatic. One former curator tells of pranks such as Adler’s piling up trash all over the curator’s desk, and late-night telephone calls in which the tipsy director affected a heavy German accent while pretending to be some fictional long-lost buddy. Last May Adler placed four thumb tacks on the chair of a staff member, who sat down on them and then required a tetanus shot. Though all these things presumably have been offered in fun, they frequently haven’t come off that way. Says Brezzo of his experiences under Adler, “It’d be funny if there wasn’t a hostile thread running through it.”

To illustrate the kind of personal quirkiness Adler is capable of, former curator Christopher Knight tells of picking up a famous artist and his wife at the Del Mar train station (sources indicate it was Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein) to bring them to a party at Adler’s house one night. The director had invited the Lichtensteins to stay over in his home, but on the way to La Jolla they decided not to trouble Adler and asked Knight to take them to the La Valencia Hotel, so they could check in before going to the party. Knight says that when he phoned Adler from the hotel to inform him of this, the director blew his top. After greeting the Lichtensteins at his house and ushering them into the party (attended by about sixty people), Knight says Adler disappeared for about thirty minutes. Then suddenly, to the utter astonishment of the local guests and the mortification of the Lichtensteins, Adler walked in carrying their luggage, which he dropped in the middle of the floor as he announced that they were staying with him. “He said he had bribed a bellboy to open their room and then packed up all their clothes,” says Knight. “I’ve never seen two more embarrassed people in my life. And that’s exactly the way he deals with his staff.” Adler refuses to talk much for the record about his curator problems, but off the record he’s got plenty of stories about backstabbing, intrigue, and power plays. “Let’s just say that young bulls like what they see that old bulls are sitting in, and they want it and try to get it,” he says cryptically. Offers one former curator: “It teaches you a lot about politics in the art world. ... In order to be a director you have to be an entrepreneur.”

Adler: So anyhow, that trip was a fiasco.

When was that?

Two years ago, a little longer than two years ago, I don’t keep track of these things. What’s time? So at that party with Beverly she said, ‘You dummy, you’ve walked into /do you know how complicated the Latin mentality is? It’s amazing you’re still here, you could get slaughtered. I have to put you with Italian people who know the government, the industrialists, the people who think art is just reading the history hooks.’ It’s politics, better believe it. ... So she said, ‘The only person I know that your chemistry and their chemistry work and you can trust is a man named Pierro Sotogo.’ An architect. So I began to meet with Pierro in Rome and a committee she set up with people. Advisors. Pierro had the smarts, he's very bright. . . ,

Second trip?

Second trip.

How long after the first trip was it?

You know, I don't keep track of things like that - I only keep track of what’s happening in the end and what would happen. So I get to Rome and we’re in the long sessions about this, and suddenly everybody’s saying Money?

Were they in favor of an industrial design show like that?

Oh, they were excited, but schmuck butts here has to come up with the money. So it finally reached the point and so I said, ’Look, you guys speak Italian, I know guveechy, but you speak Italian.’ But you know if you speak French or German/you have to concentrate 'cause you’re leaving your culture, your symbols and all that, everything is different. So I was getting very bored, sitting there while they're all talking Italian. I’m falling asleep and my stomach is so sore ’cause/and I’m thinking. ‘How did you ever get yourself into this mess?’ I didn’t realize how dumb I was, I just went trotting off into the woods picking flowers. And so it finally got to the point, it was one, two in the morning, and they suddenly all turned to me and said, ‘Well, what do you think of that?’ What do I think of what? I said, ‘Listen, I’m very tired, I’ve made a terrible mistake here, why don’t we just cancel the show’/ ’cause somebody had told me that one thing you have to do in Italy is go way down, that’s very similar to Hungarians, we get very depressed. Then we’re way up. I have a cycle. . . for a while I’m the most stupid person in the world, I don’t know shit, and how fate got me into a trap like this/and everybody around me is miserable from my wife to the dog Sasha to the cat Pookie, everybody, my staff. Then I go climbing back up again, things get better, then / drive ’em pretty nuts 'cause I’m really going/energy. So at the meeting I was hitting the low cycle, so I said, ‘Would one of you take me home? Take me back to the hotel. And let’s just forget it.’

Last Thursday Adler was bounding through his museum, clad in tennis shoes, jeans, and a short-sleeved shirt, doing what he loves most: hanging the works for a new exhibition. His hard, crystal-blue eyes were oblivious to the undulating seascape outside the huge picture window in front of which he’d set up a small portable table and chair. Periodically he returned to the table for another cigarette and a glance at a bundle of papers on which was listed the art he wanted to hang for this show, an exhibition of works from the museum’s holdings entitled “A Perspective on the Permanent Collection.” The exhibit takes up virtually the whole museum, with a section devoted solely to California artists, but a small gallery in the southwestern comer of the building remains a haven for Adler’s coveted minimalist works.- The exhibition, in planning tor about a year, actually was in the hands of former curator of education Martha Winans, until Adler abolished her job just days before the exhibition’s installation. Now it is his show, and it is very different from what Winans was planning. The incident fits the pattern of former curators being allowed to plan and work on particular exhibits, and then at the last minute Adler stepping in and canceling the show, or in this case, shanghaiing it and re-doing the whole thing. (Winans had planned on dividing the show thematically; the art would have been organized roughly into figurative work, the use of language, flatness, illusion and light, and the evocation of three dimensions on a two-dimensional plan£. Her use of pop art would have been limited to the language theme. Adler, on the other hand, has divided the show more by actual artistic movements, such as pop and minimalism, which are represented as strongly as the more current works in the section of California artists.) In taking over the show from Winans and terminating her employment, Adler invoked his always-ready and irrefutable reason: a shortage of money. In Winans’ case, projected cutbacks in government grant money this year have forced the director to withdraw support for much of what Winans was doing in her exhibitions of film, poetry, dance, music, and performance.

But Adler isn’t much concerned with internal politics or the way people view him. No matter what he does, he knows he’ll be criticized for it, so he just plunges forward with his vision of what the museum should be and do. As he directs his staff in the hanging of the art — a very exacting, laborious procedure — Adler is seemingly in every part of the museum at once, overseeing the transporting of the works from the basement vault, pointing out small holes in the walls that need to be filled in, calculating with a staff member how best to hang certain heavy pieces. His regard for the works, as he confronts them during installation or when he’s just walking around showing his museum to a visitor, is evidently not on the level of emotion. Maybe it’s because he’s seen them so many times, but when he points out a piece he truly likes, it is not apparent that the art touches him on some deep level. It’s almost as one former curator put it, as if “he sees the pieces as collectibles,” objects with more extrinsic than intrinsic value.

Asked if he likes all the artwork he's hanging, Adler bluntly replies that he does not. “You want to see what I don’t like?’’ he asks. He walks over to a small gallery filled with nearly a dozen works. To spare the artists’ feelings, he asks that the pieces not be named specifically. But one by one, pointing to each piece as it sits leaned against the wall, waiting to be hung, Adler dismisses them from his liking. Predictably, all the pieces were done very recently by California artists who aren’t widely known.

The museum’s permanent collection of about 4000 works is known for being strong in the areas of pop and minimalism, which came to the fore more or less successively in the Sixties and Seventies. When Adler was hired, the board of trustees clearly indicated that it wanted a respectable, important collection to be built. The board's acquisitions committee has the final say in what’s purchased or accepted on long-term loan (and considered part of the permanent collection), but it almost unfailingly accepts Adler’s recommendations. Money, which is always in short supply, has determined the stylistic emphasis of the collection as much as Adler’s tastes have. “When I came here,’’ explains Adler, standing before a huge collage by Robert Rauschenberg, “it was already too late to buy pop. And what I wouldn’t give for a Rothko, or a Kline, or a Pollack. But I just don’t have the money, and even if I did, they’re almost not available.’’ From the Rauschenberg, which is on loan from the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York and which is worth probably $100,000 (and which Adler hopes to be able to buy), the director walks over to the Carl Andre sculpture piece, displayed on the floor of the main gallery. It comprises several magnesium/zinc plates arranged in a three-foot square, and was the first piece Adler recommended for purchase. It cost $10,000 in 1977, and is probably worth three times that now. Adler doesn’t like to talk about how much art works are worth (“I’m only interested in historic value, I don’t buy for money value”), but the monetary value of the collection is one reason it’s respected. The $11 million the collection is said to be worth includes the value of works that are on loan to the museum, but not owned by it outright. In fact, most of the more valuable pieces in the collection were either donated (such as the huge Ellsworth Kelly painting with the bending swaths of radiant red, green, and blue, a gift from board member Carolyn Farris), or on loan from dealers or institutions. One famous pop piece, the Roy Lichtenstein mirror painting which was near the Andre on the west wall of the main gallery, was a combination purchase and gift. The Erving Blum Gallery in New York City set the price at $100,000, of which the museum raised and paid half three years ago. The other half of the price was a gift from the commercial gallery.

Adler’s relationship with the acquisitions committee pretty much parallels his relationship with the whole board of trustees: they generally leave it up to him to make the major aesthetic and administrative decisions. The twenty-five board members, led by Danah Fayman, are typically moneyed, prominent figures (Barry McComic, Paul Stevens, Edgar Marston, Murray Galinson, and Mrs. Roland Sahm are among them) with little knowledge of contemporary art (there are exceptions), whose chief function is to contribute and raise money and establish the museum’s goals. Fayman’s dominance of the board and friendship with Adler have been credited for keeping the director here, and even though individual board members have in the past been known to want Adler fired, Fayman says she doesn’t think his job will be in jeopardy after she steps down as president this fall. It is Fayman who has been the most consistent source of money, in both acquisitions funding and Adler’s expenses in his pursuit of works and exhibitions.

Adler: So I get back to the hotel room, but now I’m bluffing, ’cause my biggest problem in doing shows for this museum is having up-front money, because sometimes, two years before a show, it costs me money to get an airplane, it costs me money to meet with people, and nobody works for nothing, including Pierro. I don’t care how rich they are or what their position is, money talks. In fact, money screams! So that night I went back to the hotel and called this big bluff.

After you’d gotten them excited about the show.

Well, I wasn’t about to give up, but I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t have any money, but I knew the idea was great, and I knew Pierro was great, but nobody had any money.

How much did you need?

Half a million dollars [laughs]. But at that point it was actually a million. So I sat up all night and I chain-smoked. Smoked four packs of cigarettes. It got to be 5:00 a.m./terrible cigarette hangover. I started running. From my hotel in Rome, the Raphael in old Rome ... I ran all the way to the Vatican/across the Tiber, past St. Angelo’s castle. I was so nervous I thought I was gonna have a nervous breakdown. My plane’s supposed to leave at noon. But at seven-thirty Pierro called me: bing, bing, bing, events changed, meetings started again. . . .

As Adler bustles around the cavernous museum, hanging some truly great and extremely valuable art (one Warhol painting of a soup can is reported to be worth nearly a million dollars), he doesn't fret too much about the relatively small number of people who will actually come in to see the exhibit. He projects that attendance this year will reach 88,000, but that figure includes openings and events at the Sherwood Hall auditorium, which is part of the museum. Actually, if fifty people visit, it’s considered a good day. Attendance is a complicated and thorny problem, and Adler says he’s just happy that there’s a slight increase every year. “I know people here who do not go to the Museum of Art in Balboa Park/which is a very major museum, there’s a helluva collection over there/and who do not come to my museum, but they’ll go to the Museum of Modem Art in New York and stand in line for an exhibition, or the Metropolitan, because that’s the thing to do. And as I told you earlier. I’m very concerned that the museum’s so white, it makes me ill some days. panics, no blacks, no Orientals. I know why, I think it’s me back at the Chicago Art Institute. I think we have a problem, being in the most affluent district, with the museum being here. But moving it isn’t going to change it. This one black guy said to me once, ‘Say, you gonna haul all our poor black children into the museum? For what? Get your attendance figures up? Eliminate your white guilt?’ It really shocked me. He had a bloody good point. That's really what it is, isn’t it? I really don’t have any answers [regarding attendance].”

But at the same time Adler has his share of complaints, as most arts organizations do, about the coverage given to his exhibits (and himself) by the local press, and the effect that coverage has on attendance. It bothers him when an important exhibition gets the same treatment and news play as a show at some commercial gallery, but what arts executive isn’t dissatisfied with his media coverage? One of Adler’s reactions to a 1979 profile of him done by the San Diego Union was forever to bar reporters from entering his home, which is where the Union interview took place. Adler was miffed by allusions (unwarranted, he says) in the story to his “reputed underhanded dealings with casino boss Alan Glick,” when a few years ago, Adler and board president Danah Fayman traveled to Las Vegas to ask Glick for a contribution. Glick, who maintains a home in La Jolla, agreed to give the museum a couple of hundred thousand dollars, to be paid in installments.

Adler: Let me tell you, the news media better be careful about knocking the rich. I detected that in you. D'you ever see Evita?

I saw the play.

Remember when the old woman said, 'Evita, use the rich to save the country’? But she misused the rich. She had nothing but scorn for them and jealousy. I use the rich.

You need the rich.

The country needs the rich. I am a devout capitalist. It upsets people to no end in my world, ’cause I live in a leftist world. . . . Anyway, back to Italy. One of the people said, My family will back the show.’ One of the richest, most powerful families in Milan [the Mauris]. So I went to this palace. This huge palace in Milan, like a hundred rooms. . . . So we signed a contract. They’d come up with a half million and the rest/a man came into our life called Gianni Ratto. Gianni Ratio, an Italian, very smart, very clever, puts the Italian Trade Show together every year. . . . But I made a stupid error, dumb again, slow on the trigger. Originally ten museums had all indicated interest in renting the show [at a cost of $20,000 each], but I didn't realize how bad I was gonna get battered. I got screwed there royally: three pulled out. One said, 'Oh, I don’t know about this, it smacks of commercialism.' Because he’s a flunky for one of my staunch enemies, and the staunch enemy hates me, so he was trying to get even with me. That’s how it goes. So stomach sore. I’d already announced in Neil Morgan’s column [in the Tribune] that I had a half-a-million-dollar grant. I was very dumb. The contract expired because the museums pulled out. It was no grant at all. It was a business deal. . . .

So I came back. This is where the president of a board is invaluable. Danah Fayman. She’s the main reason I've stayed here, and Mickey Gribin, the board is terrific. . . .To do my bluff, to go to Italy, different trustees would pick up my airline ticket for me, and my immediate expenses.

Separate ones would pay for it?

Yeah. I’d go to ’em and say, 7 need, uh, 5000 bucks to go to Italy.’ Never questioning. I mean that’s what makes a good board. They knew I was onto something. They trusted me. Sol came back and I said to Danah, ‘We’re back to point zero.’ I told her about the cash-flow problems, that we need so much a month. . and then Danah went and met Ratto and Sotogo in Aspen. She said, ‘Go for it. We’ll come up with the money. . . .’"

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

Log in to comment

Skip Ad
Close

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader