In 1917, Kansas City art collector Sallie Casey Thayer 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. The University of Kansas Museum of Art, housed in Spooner Hall, was established in 1928 based on this collection. Over the years the collection has continued to grow thanks to the generosity of benefactors and the expertise of curators.
The collection expanded significantly in 2007 when the Spencer Museum of Art assumed stewardship of approximately 8,500 ethnographic objects from the former University of Kansas Museum of Anthropology. The collection includes a variety of cultural objects from around the world, with a particular emphasis on Native American materials.
Today, the Museum’s collection exceeds 47,000 objects spanning the history of European and American art from ancient to contemporary, with broad and significant holdings of East Asian art. Areas of special strength include medieval art; European and American painting, sculpture, and prints; photography; Japanese Edo-period painting and prints; and 20th-century Chinese painting.
By the late 1960s, the University of Kansas Museum of Art had outgrown its quarters in Spooner Hall. In 1976, Mrs. Helen Foresman Spencer, a Kansas City collector and patron of the arts, made a gift of $4.6 million to fund the construction of a new museum. The resulting building, which opened in 1978, houses the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, the Kress Foundation Department of Art History, and the Murphy Library of Art and Architecture. The neo-classical structure, built from Indiana limestone, was designed by Kansas City architect Robert E. Jenks, a 1926 KU graduate.
In 2010, the Spencer Museum partnered with architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners to develop a master renovation and expansion plan for its spaces. In April 2015, the Museum closed to the public for Phase I renovation. This 16-month project addressed the first part of the master plan and marked the first major renovation since the building’s opening. The project was supported by $8 million given by nearly 200 individual donors and foundations. Phase I transformed nearly 30,000 square feet of the building, with features including an enlarged, light-filled lobby with a new flexible gathering space; expanded and enhanced teaching and learning spaces, including the Stephen H. Goddard Study Center; increased storage for works on paper; improved access through an in-gallery elevator and staircase; and a two-story, floor-to-ceiling window overlooking historic Marvin Grove.
In May 2021, the fourth-floor galleries closed to the public for Phase II renovation, following the successful 2016 Phase I renovation, also designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Phase II introduced new ceilings and lighting to the galleries that were untouched during Phase I and enhanced the entire fourth floor with new oak floors. Situated within the updated galleries is the new 1,150-square-foot Ingrid & J.K. Lee Study Center, which features custom drawers and glass cases designed to display larger and three-dimensional works of art. These architectural improvements provided an opportunity to rethink the presentation and interpretation of the Museum’s collection galleries, which reopened in November of 2022 with four new exhibitions that expand the diversity of artworks and identities represented. Phase II and the reinstallation of the collection galleries were supported by a $900,000 gift from the J.K. and Ingrid Lee Foundation, two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as private philanthropy, totaling over $4 million.
Sallie Casey Thayer provides the University of Kansas with a gift of nearly 7,500 art objects to found a museum “to encourage the study of fine arts in the Middle West.”
The University of Kansas Museum of Art is established in Spooner Hall.
Having outgrown its quarters in Spooner Hall, the Museum moves to a new building funded by Kansas City art collector Helen Foresman Spencer. The Museum is renamed The Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art in her honor.
The Museum assumes stewardship of more than 9,000 objects from the former KU Museum of Anthropology, vastly expanding the scope of its collection.
The Museum completes Phase I renovation, transforming nearly 30,000 square feet of the facility and creating the Stephen H. Goddard Study Center and the Jack & Lavon Brosseau Center for Learning.