On October 16, 1928, Robert Phifer, an art collector and native North Carolinian, died. He bequeathed seventy-five paintings and over $1 million to the North Carolina Art Society. The next year the first in a series of temporary art exhibition spaces opened in the Agriculture Building in Raleigh.
In 1947, Robert Lee Humber of Greenville lobbied the General Assembly for a bill to provide $1 million for the purchase of more works of art for the state. The money was needed to match an equal amount from an anonymous donor, later identified as department store owner Samuel H. Kress. The bill passed, and the appropriation made North Carolina the first state to inaugurate an art collection with public funds.
The initial legislative appropriation was used to purchase 139 European and American paintings and sculptures. The Kress Foundation matched the appropriation with a gift of 70 works of art, primarily from the Italian Renaissance.
The North Carolina Museum of Art moved to its present location in 1983. Through the 1990s, and into the new millennium, the museum experienced unprecedented growth to its art collection—both in quality and diversity. In addition to exhibit rotations, the museum offers educational programs for students, teachers, and visitors. The year 2010 saw the completion of a state of the art new home for its permanent collection. The building itself has been called “a work of art.”