SAN FRANCISCO — Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972, was known in Olympic circles for his racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic beliefs. He was largely responsible for kicking John Carlos and Tommie Smith out of the Olympic Village after they raised their fists in the air at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics in support of Black power; he thought women shouldn’t participate in Olympic events that were “not truly feminine, like putting a shot”; and he had a big part in bringing the 1936 Olympics to Nazi Germany.
Brundage also collected art from primarily East Asia, and in 1959 he donated almost 8,000 pieces to San Francisco as the foundation for its Asian Art Museum (these pieces comprise about 40% of the museum’s currently held 18,000). Now, because of its founding donor’s views, the museum has decided to remove the 1972 bust of Brundage (made by the artist Jean Sprenger) from the lobby.
To contextualize this decision, the Asian Art Museum has scheduled a series of public programs about Brundage’s legacy and the collection. The first one, “Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Gender Bias in the Olympics: The Impact and Legacy of Avery Brundage,” was held on July 15 (you can watch it in its entirety here). It included the museum’s director, Dr. Jay Xu; sports sociologist and civil rights activist Dr. Harry Edwards, who was the lead organizer behind the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which led to Smith and Carlos’s Black Power salute; and Dr. Jules Boykoff, a political science professor at Pacific University in Oregon, who recently wrote an article with Dave Zirin for The Nation about taking the bust down.
Boykoff played soccer professionally and with the US Olympic soccer team in international matches. In an interview with Hyperallergic before the panel, he said at the time he played he was “clueless about the politics swirling around that event.”
Since then, Boykoff has written four books about the politics of the Olympics. For one of these, Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, he researched Brundage’s archives and discovered that Brundage’s views went far beyond what was considered ‘common’ for his time.
“He was even worse than he appeared in public,” Boykoff said. “He had all manner of wild ideas. He was against medicine, for instance. He felt like people who needed medicine were weak, so they should probably just die. It was this extreme Social Darwinism.”
Deb Clearwaters, director of interpretation for the museum, set up the programs to discuss Brundage’s legacy. For a while, she says, the leadership at the museum has been considering taking the bust down from the lobby — an act that will have to wait since the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t allow staff to be in close proximity to take down the heavy stone. For now, it’s covered by a box.
“It’s not that we disappear it,” Clearwaters said. “We want to make taking it down a visible action to the public and staff about our values.”
There are currently signs alongside the bust, reading in part:
We publicly condemn Brundage for the harms he inflicted via the Olympic platform. 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 . . . Museums shape how people see the world. We must take care to ensure that the stories we tell encourage inclusivity and justice.
Boykoff says it’s useful for the museum to examine its history in public.
“I think the discussion and the bust removal are very healthy,” he said. “I don’t view this as the erasure of history, but about enlivening of history.”
At the event, Xu talked about his journey to becoming the director of the Asian Art Museum in 2008; having grown up in Shanghai, he moved to the US in 1990 to study art and archeology, becoming a naturalized citizen in 2006. He talked about making the museum’s free day Sunday rather than a weekday, to make it easier for working people to come, and he said he believed museums should serve as a “hub of humanity.”
It’s time for the bust of Brundage to go, Xu said. “His actions and words on the leadership of the Olympic committee contradict our mission of connecting diverse communities,” he said. “His bust does not belong in the entryway.”
During the event, Edwards, a mentor to former 49er Colin Kaepernick who kneeled in 2016 to protest police brutality, connected taking down Avery’s bust to the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder by the police.
“It’s time for his bust to go, it’s time for his words to go,” Edwards said. “It’s nothing other than a lesson of what can happen when everyone does not have a say in who creates monuments.”
As for the people who think you can’t get rid of Brundage’s bust and keep his art, Edwards was succinct. “He did not own the art,” he said. “You can’t own beauty. You can’t own truth.”
Edwards said that people need to work with institutions, including museums, to find a way forward in dismantling white supremacy, which he acknowledged was difficult.
“It’s a challenge breaking up hegemony,” he said. “That is why they call it a struggle rather than a picnic.”