In 1959, Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage agreed to donate the first part of his vast collection of Asian art to San Francisco on the condition that the city build a new museum to house it.
In 1960, to meet the Brundage challenge, a $2,725,000 bond issue was passed by the voters of San Francisco to acquire the collection and to build a facility for it. Completed in 1966, the new facility opened on June 11, 1966, in a space constructed as a wing of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park. At that time, the administrative responsibility of overseeing the collection and the building remained with the board of trustees of the de Young. At the dedication of the new wing, Avery Brundage said, "In presenting this collection to San Francisco my hope is that, together with the facilities of the region's great universities, it will help San Francisco and the Bay Area become one of the world's greatest centers of Oriental culture."
Avery Brundage continued to collect for the next decade, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year filling in the gaps in his collection. In 1969, he was in a position to make a second gift. This was the occasion of Brundage's second challenge to San Francisco—to provide an autonomous administration for the collection and operations and to raise $3 million for acquisitions and education. The agreement between Mr. Brundage and the city in July 1969 provided for an independent Committee of Asian Art and Culture, whose goal would be to make the museum the foremost center for Asian art in the Western world. At that point, the institution became an independent entity with its own 27-member governing body (known today as the Asian Art Commission); its own staff, including specialists in Chinese, Japanese, South Asian, and Himalayan arts (a department dedicated to Southeast Asian art was added in 1985, and another dedicated to Korean art—the first of its kind outside of Asia—in 1989); its own library; its own conservation and photographic departments, and its own budget. The city agreed to provide building maintenance, security, and adequate funds for standard operating expenses. In 1973 the institution—until then known officially as the Center for Asian Art and Culture—was renamed the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
Avery Brundage continued to collect until his death in 1975. He bequeathed his remaining Asian art to the museum, making the collection one of the greatest in America. In total, Avery Brundage donated more than 7,700 Asian art objects to the City of San Francisco—all housed at the Asian Art Museum. Today, the museum’s collection stands at more than 18,000 objects, making it the largest museum in the United States devoted exclusively to the arts of Asia.
Golden Gate Park Years
During its 35 years of residency in Golden Gate Park, the museum was a leader in presenting groundbreaking special exhibitions. Some highlights include:
In June 1975, the museum presented the first major international exhibition to travel outside of China since the end of World War II: The Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People’s Republic of China. It drew an astounding 800,000 visitors in an eight-week period.
In May 1979, the museum presented 5000 Years of Korean Art, a landmark exhibition of national treasures organized by the Asian Art Museum in conjunction with the National Museum of Korea.
May 4, 1983, marked the opening of Treasures from the Shanghai Museum: 6,000 Years of Chinese Art. It was the first exhibition ever organized with a museum in China, and grew out of San Francisco’s Sister City relationship with Shanghai.
On April 17, 1991, the Dalai Lama officially opened Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, an exhibition organized by the Asian Art Museum in association with Tibet House, New York; the exhibition traveled to other worldwide venues for many years.
In August, 1994, the museum played host to the famous terra-cotta warriors of China’s first emperor when it organized and presented Tomb Treasures from China: The Buried Art of Ancient Xi’an.
In July, 1995, the museum organized and presented the largest and most comprehensive collection of Mongolian art ever viewed in the United States, Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan.
Move to Civic Center
After the museum’s collection began to grow—compounded by the museum’s desire to display more special exhibitions and offer more public programs—it became clear that the institution had outgrown its Golden Gate Park facility.
The City of San Francisco, understanding the museum’s limitations in Golden Gate Park, offered the city’s former Main Publication Library building to the museum after it was clear the library was relocating to a new space, and after usage studies suggested the building would be better suited for a museum. In 1987, the City approved a plan for revitalization of the Civic Center. In late 1994, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly supported a bond measure to renovate the former Main Library as the new home of the Asian Art Museum.
In October 1995, Asian Art Commissioner and respected Silicon Valley entrepreneur Chong-Moon Lee presented a $15 million leadership gift to the capital campaign for the new Asian Art Museum at Civic Center. Recognizing the magnitude of Mr. Lee’s gift, the Asian Art Commission established the “Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture” at the Asian Art Museum. In 1994, Mr. Lee also gave $1 million to the museum’s Korean Department.In 1996, the museum chose renowned Italian architect Gae Aulenti—widely recognized as a designer who specializes in the adaptive conversion of historic structures into museum spaces—as the design architect of its new facility. Her award-winning projects include the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which was created from an enormous railway station built in 1900; the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, adapted within the framework of an eighteenth-century Venetian palace; and the National Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona, the former National Palace built in 1929 for an international exposition. The joint venture of Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK), LDA Architects and Robert Wong Architect acted as the project architect, working with Gae Aulenti to incorporate her design concepts into the complete design package.The museum stayed open to the public at its Golden Gate Park facility until October 7, 2001, when it closed in preparation for the move to its new, expanded facility. The Asian Art Museum reopened at its current Civic Center location on March 20, 2003.