The museum, dedicated in September 1977, was built with funds from the Kenneth A. and Helen F. Spencer Foundation. It is named for Helen Foresman Spencer, a student in the 1920s who married Kenneth A. Spencer, a 1926 graduate who founded a chemical company and the Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City, Mo. Like the Spencer Research Library, which she also funded, the museum was designed by architect Robert Jenks of Kansas City, a KU classmate of the Spencers, and built of white Indiana limestone.
Its galleries mount exhibits from the permanent collections and touring or special exhibits. Special strengths include medieval art; European and American paintings, sculpture and prints; photography; Japanese painting and prints; and quilts and textiles. It also houses the Art and Architecture Library; the Kress Foundation Department of Art History; an auditorium that seats 265; and faculty and administrative offices.
In spring 2015, the first phase of a renovation and expansion of the museum is to begin. The $5-million project, designed by Yvonne Szeto and Bruce White of the renowned international architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, will encompass more than 15,000 square feet of the museum’s interior. The proposed design will expand the lobby and visitor spaces and reintroduce the museum bookshop; add a central staircase and elevator; install floor-to-ceiling windows on two stories looking west to Marvin Grove to add natural light to the Central Court and adjacent galleries; expand and renovate storage and study spaces for the collection of works on paper; and add a teaching/learning gallery.