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 & Architecture Library; the Kress Foundation Department of Art History; an auditorium that seats 265; and faculty and administrative offices.
A $5-million renovation and expansion project that began in 2015 was designed by Yvonne Szeto and Bruce White of the renowned international architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.
Encompasseing more than 15,000 square feet of the museum’s interior, it expanded the lobby and visitor spaces and reintroduced the museum bookshop; added a central staircase and elevator; installed floor-to-ceiling windows on two stories looking west to Marvin Grove to add natural light to the Central Court and adjacent galleries; expanded and renovated storage and study spaces for the collection of works on paper; and added a teaching/learning gallery.