The ASU Art Museum was founded in 1950 with a significant gift of American and Mexican artworks purchased by Oliver B. James, a prominent local lawyer. James donated 149 works of art over a five-year span. The art collection originally was installed among the stacks of books in the Matthews Library. When the Hayden Library was completed in 1965, the books were removed and the art remained.
From this humble single-gallery beginning, by 1978 the museum occupied the entire second floor of the Matthews Center with 10,000 square feet of exhibition space. The museum continued to expand in prints and a significant American craft collection; the ceramic collection increased dramatically in 1977 when a National Endowment for the Arts matching grant was awarded to the museum for the purchase of contemporary American ceramics. Ongoing gifts by collectors and supporters have significantly enhanced the collection, and the ASU Art Museum now boasts one of the largest contemporary American and British ceramic collections in the United States.
In April 1989, the ASU Art Museum opened additional space within the newly constructed Nelson Fine Arts Center. This museum facility now includes five expansive galleries, storage and processing areas and administrative offices. The staff nearly doubled with the addition of a curator of education, a print collection manager and more administrative and security personnel.
In 1992 a commitment to fresh new approaches in exhibitions and collections was launched with the arrival of the museum's new director, Marilyn A. Zeitlin. Traditional art forms are not precluded but opportunities are sought to address the theoretical issues of more traditional work while promoting the investigation of new viewpoints. The craft and print areas remain an important part of the ASU Art Museum's holdings. More emphasis has been given to contemporary artists, both regional and international, and to Latin American art. The museum continues to be housed in two facilities: the Nelson Fine Arts Center and the new Ceramics Research Center, which opened to the public in March 2002.
At the west edge of campus, the Nelson Fine Arts Center is a landmark building designed by architect Antoine Predock and serves as the primary museum exhibition space. The Ceramics Research Center is just north of the Nelson Fine Arts Center in the Tempe Center.
Today, the ASU Art Museum continues to grow through the enhancement of its collections, innovative approaches to educational programs, scope of exhibitions, efforts to reach new audiences, the addition of key education and fundraising staff and expanded community representation on the ASU Art Museum Advisory Board.