Avery Brundage Brings Asian Art to the U.S.

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1966

Avery Brundage is perhaps best known for his involvement with the Olympic movement—he was a track-and-field competitor at the 1912 Stockholm games, and led the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972. He grew up penniless, after his father abandoned the family, and was once described by Sports Illustrated as “the kind of man whom Horatio Alger had canonized—the American urchin, tattered and deprived, who rose to thrive in the company of kings and millionaires.” After his sporting career, Brundage made a fortune in construction, developing commercial buildings in fast-growing early-twentieth-century Chicago. During the Depression he would sometimes take an ownership interest in properties in lieu of cash payment—which paid off handsomely after World War II.

Brundage used a big part of his wealth to accumulate a collection of Asian art that Life called “one of the largest and most important in private hands in this country.” Its works spanned the continent, coming from not only Japan, Korea, and China, but also Southeast Asia, India, Tibet, and Persia. They included jades from the neolithic period to the modern era, as well as hundreds of bronzes, and an eclectic mix of ceramics, scrolls, paintings, prints, and textiles.

In the 1950s, Brundage offered to donate his treasures to the city of San Francisco. His unabashed goal was to help “the Bay Area become one of the world’s greatest centers of Oriental culture.” The new Asian Art Museum opened in 1966, with Brundage’s collection at the core. By the time he died in 1975, Brundage had given 7,700 artworks to the museum, and prodded it to increasing heights in public presentation and scholarly authority. Since then, other philanthropists have opened great collections of Asian art to the public—for instance, the Sackler and Freer Galleries in Washington D.C., and the Crow Museum in Dallas. Asian art is thus no longer uncommon in the U.S. Yet America’s preeminent repository of creations from across the Pacific remains the one gathered by the urchin from Chicago.