Ground was broken for the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in 1991, and the museum was opened in October 1993. The museum cost $15 million and was financed entirely by private donations. It was designed by LA architect James Langenheim and former directors of lighting and design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art LeMar Terry and Stuart Oliver. Other personnel from the Smithsonian Institution, the Getty Museum, and the National Gallery of Art also contributed to the museum’s construction and design.
The museum’s four stories contain exhibition galleries, an auditorium, classrooms, a small theater, a print study room, a gift shop, a café, security and administration offices, and design, fabrication, imaging, registration, and storage areas. The grounds are decorated by a sculpture garden and reflection pool. The museum is staffed by student security guards who monitor the art and patrons.
Exhibitions have featured the works of M.C. Escher, Tiffany Glass, and Norman Rockwell, along with Pulitzer Prize photographs and other well-known local, national, and international artists. The museum found itself at the center of minor controversy following an administrative decision to leave out certain pieces of a traveling exhibit titled “The Hands of Rodin: Tribute to B. Gerald Cantor” when it came to BYU. Students protested the decision to keep “The Kiss,” “Saint John the Baptist Preaching,” “The Prodigal Son,” and “Monument to Balzac” out of the public eye, but the university defended its decision, contending that the museum services varying audiences and that the pieces might not be appropriate for every patron.
BYU’s collection of art started long before the museum was opened. The collection began in 1909 when a painting of a sycamore tree by Utah painter John Hafen was donated. In 1937, Herald R. Clark purchased 85 prints from artist Maynard Dixon. In 1960, the school received artist Mahonri Young’s art collection which included over 10,000 works. Several BYU presidents had commented on the value and extensive nature of the collection, but real efforts to create a public home for the collection did not begin until the 1980s. At the dedication of the campus Life Science Museum, Monte L. Bean said: “I’m going to recommend that we look forward to having a new art center…One day, they tactfully showed me all of the hundreds of beautiful paintings that are sealed in the room downstairs in the archives…and none of you people are enjoying them.” During the dedication of the art museum, BYU President Rex Lee noted, “We have an art museum to match the quality of our collection.”