Bust of older white man displayed in museum entryway
The bust of Avery Brundage, located near the visitor's entrance of the S.F. Asian Art Museum. (Photo/Courtesy S.F. Asian Art Museum)

S.F. Asian Art Museum to remove bust of founding donor with antisemitic views

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum plans to remove a bronze bust honoring Avery Brundage, a founding donor whose well-documented antisemitic and racist views were pervasive throughout his career.

Brundage donated some 8,000 artworks in 1959 that “formed the core of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco,” according to director Jay Xu.

On July 6, a white box was placed over the bust, located just inside the museum’s visitor entrance. A week later, the museum added a sign by the bust.

“We publicly condemn Brundage… His beliefs and actions contradict the Asian Art Museum’s mission to inspire new ways of thinking by connecting diverse communities to historic and contemporary Asian art and culture,” the sign reads in part.

Brundage, a former competitive athlete who headed the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972, earlier served as president of the American Olympic Committee. In the early 1930s he was instrumental in bringing the U.S. Olympic team to the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany, despite considerable protest over Hitler’s growing persecution of Jews, including barring German Jewish athletes from competing in the games.

Avery Brundage, then-vice president of the International Olympic Committee, speaks to the media at the London Olympics in 1948. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
Avery Brundage, then-vice president of the International Olympic Committee, speaks to the media at the London Olympics in 1948. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1933, Brundage was sent to Germany to investigate rumors about the exclusion of Jewish athletes. In a New York Times interview after his return, Brundage defended the absence of Jews in the planned German games.

“The fact that no Jews have been named so far to compete for Germany doesn’t necessarily mean that they have been discriminated against on that score,” he said, noting that Jews had never really been a significant part of the German team. 

Behind the scenes, however, a 1933 letter he wrote to a colleague included an anti-Semitic screed about Jewish influence in the media.

“The New York newspapers, which are largely controlled by Jews, devote a very considerable percentage of their news columns to the situation in Germany,” he wrote. “The articles are 99% anti-Nazi.”

As the ’36 Games drew closer, Brundage became more vocal in his defense of America’s participation, even after Jews lost their German citizenship with the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935.

“These attacks by the enemies of sport, for that is what they are, are beginning to make me angry,” Brundage wrote about those who opposed U.S. participation.

Months after the games, Brundage praised the host country in a letter to a colleague.  “No one is more enthusiastic over what Hitler has done for Germany than I am,” he wrote.

Brundage donated the museum’s most well-known artwork, a bronze rhinoceros dating to the 11th century BCE. Originally housed at the M.H. de Young Museum starting in 1966, the Asian Art Museum moved to its current Civic Center location in 2003 once its collection grew too large.

S.F. Asian Art Museum Director Jay Xu (Courtesy S.F. Asian Art Museum)
Jay Xu (Courtesy S.F. Asian Art Museum)

The decision to remove Brundage’s bust was discussed at an online July 15 museum lecture that examined his life, titled “Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Gender Bias in the Olympics: The Impact and Legacy of Avery Brundage.” The lecture, moderated by director Xu, featured sports sociologist Harry Edwards and political science professor Jules Boykoff, a former Olympic athlete.

Among the issues discussed were Brundage’s controversial move during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith famously raised their fists in a Black Power salute. Brundage reportedly was “infuriated” and removed the two men from the Olympic Village.

In a letter to those who supported his decision, Brundage wrote, “The boys were sent home, but they should not have been there in the first place.” 

Brundage also railed against female athletes.

“I think it is quite well known that I am lukewarm on most of the events for women for a number of reasons,” he wrote in a 1949 letter. “I think women’s events should be confined to those appropriate for women; swimming, tennis, figure skating and fencing but certainly not shot putting.”

In the July 15 lecture, Boykoff said, “Time and time again, Brundage took positions that placed him on the wrong side of history.” In removing the bust, Boykoff said, “It’s not about the erasure of history. To the contrary, it’s about enlivening discussions of history.”

Avery Brundage's bust is currently covered by a white box. (Courtesy S.F. Asian Art Museum)
Avery Brundage’s bust is currently covered by a white box. (Courtesy S.F. Asian Art Museum)

In an emailed statement to J., Xu acknowledged Brundage’s 1959 donation but said his “role in our institutional history has faded to some degree from the story we tell about ourselves.” Thousands of artworks from other Asian countries not included in Brundage’s contribution have expanded the museum’s collection considerably to 18,000 items, he said.

Xu said the museum has been examining Brundage’s legacy for years, especially in light of the institution’s 50th anniversary in 2016.

“What this says to me is that the art leads us forward, not the man,” Xu said. “It’s the art that connects us. Brundage gave the art, but the people of San Francisco gave it a home.”

The museum, which remains closed due to the coronavirus, will permanently remove Brundage’s bust once staff can return safely, Xu said. The spot where the bust now sits will be replaced with signs to explain the museum’s decision.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.