The North Dakota Museum of Art began in the mid-1970s as the University of North Dakota Art Galleries, a temporary exhibition space primarily for the benefit of university students. In 1981 the North Dakota State Legislature designated the University Galleries as North Dakota's official art museum. With its expanded mission came a new name: the North Dakota Museum of Art.
The first task was to find an appropriate and permanent home. A building fund, established in the late 1970s from private sources, had grown to $1 million. The staff and the Friends of the North Dakota Museum of Art, a nonprofit organization established in 1985, raised an additional $400,000. The University of North Dakota agreed to give the Museum a 1907 gymnasium if the Friends raised the additional money needed for the renovation. In September 1989 the building, designed by Harvey Hoshour, an MIT graduate who worked for Mies van der Rohe before establishing his own firm in New Mexico, opened to great public enthusiasm. Artists participated by designing the public restrooms (neon artist Cork Marcheschi), the gift shop and the donor wall (Barton Benes), and the sculpture garden (Richard Nonas).
The North Dakota Museum of Art collects contemporary, international art in all media from the early 1970s onwards. It collects the visual history of the region. It is also assembling a survey collection of contemporary Native American art, starting with the early 1970s when the movement emerged. This does not preclude the acceptance of collections that are outside this focus if they would enrich the visual life of our audience, i.e. a historical textile collection.