‘Lefty’ Adler, former La Jolla museum director, dead at 78


Staff Writer

Sebastian “Lefty” Adler, 78, a pivotal figure in the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art’s history whom many credit with improving the image of the museum, died of natural causes Nov. 29 in Temple City, Calif.

Adler, director of the museum in La Jolla from 1973 to 1983, focused on growing its collection, emphasizing the works of emerging minimalists.

Former Museum of Contemporary Art trustee Carolyn Farris said the museum wouldn’t be what it is today without Adler’s influence.

“If it weren’t for Lefty, we probably would be just a boring little local museum,” she said. “He’s the one that started the museum in the direction that we’ve been going. He had a fabulous eye. He was really tuned into what was going on the art world.”

Other La Jollans who knew Adler agreed he had exceptional “instincts.”

“He had a great eye in spotting talent and in identifying art work that subsequently became very important,” said Hugh Davies, David C. Copley director and CEO of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

“He could judge who was good in the contemporary art field,” said Dr. Charles Cochrane, a Museum of Contemporary Art trustee. “He had a way of picking up pieces of those artists, often getting the best pieces that were available, and putting them in the collection of the museum.”

Cochrane cited one example of an Adler “find” — Agnes Martin of New Mexico, whose early work Adler showcased before it was later exhibited all over the country.

He also talked of another of Adler’s Cochrane talents.

“He had a number of exhibitions that were the lead exhibitions in the country, if not the world,” he said.

Davies said Adler truly left his mark on the museum and the San Diego art world.

“The programs and purchases he brought made it an absolutely pivotal decade, where it went from being a small, regional museum to being an internationally recognized museum of contemporary art,” he said.

Born in 1932 in Chicago, Adler later lived in Wisconsin, where his father owned a mink farm. He served in the Air Force in the early 1950s and earned a bachelor’s degree in art in 1958 at the University of Minnesota. Adler, who was fired by the La Jolla museum board in 1983, was identified as “a rogue museum director in a 1985 Los Angeles Times story. He later became an art consultant and moved to Temple City in 2000. He had three children.