In 1917 Sallie Casey Thayer, a Kansas City art collector, offered her collection of nearly 7,500 art objects to the University of Kansas to form a museum "to encourage the study of fine arts in the Middle West." Her eclectic collection included paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, furniture, rugs, textiles, metalwork, ceramics, glass, and other examples of decorative arts, primarily from Europe and Asia. Eventually the University of Kansas Museum of Art was established in 1928, based on this collection. Over the years the collection has grown substantially thanks to the generosity of many benefactors and the expertise of many curators.
By the late 1960s the Museum had outgrown its quarters in Spooner Hall. Mrs. Helen Foresman Spencer, another Kansas City collector and patron of the arts, made a gift of $4.6 million that funded construction of a new museum. The building housing the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, the Kress Foundation Department of Art History, and the Murphy Library of Art and Architecture opened in 1978. The neo-classical structure, built from Indiana limestone, was designed by Kansas City architect Robert E. Jenks, a 1926 graduate of KU.
In 2007, the Spencer Museum grew again when approximately 9,500 ethnographic collection objects from the former University of Kansas Museum of Anthropology were transferred to the Spencer Museum of Art. The collection includes a wide variety of cultural materials from all around the world, with a particular emphasis on American Indian materials. The collection is still housed in historic Spooner Hall and the storage space has been upgraded to include specially designed cabinets to house and protect the collection.