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Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr.

Asian Art Museum Contends with Racist Legacy of Patron Avery Brundage

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum has removed a bust of the institution’s founding patron Avery Brundage that sat prominently in the institution’s foyer for nearly five decades. The twentieth-century sports administrator served as the fifth president of the International Olympic Committee, established an institution to house his eight-thousand-work collection in 1966, and developed a reputation as a Nazi sympathizer and a white supremacist.

Brundage, who died in 1975, opposed the boycott of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and advocated for the America First movement, which was against the United States’ entry in World War II. The museum benefactor also expelled African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the 1968 Olympic Games after they famously raised their fists in solidarity with the Black Power movement during the medal ceremony. Museum director Jay Xu told the New York Times that the museum was not fully aware of some of Brundage’s racist actions until 2016, when the staff was readying for its fiftieth-anniversary celebrations.

In a June 4 letter to the public in response to increased pressure on institutions to reassess their racism—pressure brought on during global protests sparked by George Floyd’s killing by Minnesota police in which monuments representing colonial and racist legacies are being targeted—Xu wrote that Brundage “espoused racist and anti-Semitic views,” and that the institution “must contend with the very history of how our museum came to be.” At a June 10 board meeting, Xu revealed that the museum would move the bust into storage and told the New York Times that the museum’s collection “reflected a fetishization of the ‘Orient’ that was common with white collectors of the times.”

Xu claimed the museum is committed to critically engaging with Brundage and his legacy, as well as with questions about the provenance of some of the works and restitution. He said that the curatorial team “[presents] the collection to the public through multiple perspectives.” He also admitted that the institution had held discussions about removing the bust previously but that the recent Black Lives Matter protests prompted them to finally take it down.

Commenting on the changes at the institution, Jeff Kelley, a former consulting curator at the museum, told the New York Times, “In this time of toppling statutes, it’s not surprising that artists and activists claim that the Asian Art Museum has been a preserve of wealthy industrialists who see ‘Asia’ as a misty colonial realm” and that the current debate may be a step in moving it “away from its Orientalist roots.”

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