The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, a scholarly teaching and research unit of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, is a major resource for the cultural education of students at the university. The museum is mandated to contribute to and support the teaching and research responsibilities of the university through close collaboration with the academic departments and to participate in the training of students for professional museum careers. By the early 2000s there were more than 17,000 works of art in the Blanton's permanent collection which provides the backbone for visual-arts education at the university and serves as a resource for teaching in architecture, history, foreign languages, Latin-American studies, classical studies, design, and other fields.
The museum began when Archer M. Huntington, who once commented "wherever I put my foot down, a museum springs up," decided to put his foot on the University of Texas campus in October 1927. Huntington, the stepson of one of the four founders of the Central Pacific Railroad, chose not to follow his stepfather Collis P. Huntington into industry but instead to devote his life to learning, fellowship, and philanthropic activity. He first became aware of the university's need for art when Diana of the Chase, a bronze sculpture by his wife, Anna Hyatt, was donated to the university by a family friend. Huntington offered the University of Texas about 4,200 acres along Galveston Bay "to be dedicated to the support of an art museum." The sale of a portion of this land and income from oil and gas leases generated the endowment fund that now supports public programs, catalogs, exhibitions, and acquisitions at the museum.
The University Art Museum opened to the public in 1963 in the university's Art Building. In 1972 the museum housed its permanent collection in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The museum was renamed the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery in 1980. In the early 1990s the permanent collection of the Huntington Art Gallery was still housed in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center on the main campus. The Huntington's encyclopedic collections ranged from ancient to medieval, European Renaissance to Baroque, western to contemporary American, and Latin American. The Huntington's gallery space, in the campus art building nearby, served as home to the museum's print and drawing collection and also showed a variety of temporary and traveling exhibitions. The Huntington's conservation laboratory was also at this site. The gallery was accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1984.
The museum's American collection includes one of the most comprehensive bodies of twentieth century art on a United States college campus. The American collection as a whole spans more than two centuries, encompasses a variety of styles and media, and includes definitive examples of nineteenth and twentieth century American art. The collection began as a gift from the Longfellow Foundation of New York, in recognition of the opening of the gallery's exhibition spaces in 1963. The museum then received the cornerstone of its American collection, the Mari and James Michener Collection of Twentieth Century American Painting. The Micheners' original gift of more than 300 works, together with their continued commitment through the years, enabled the museum to obtain a total of 375 paintings by American artists. Cyrus Rowlett (C. R) Smith's donation of some 100 Western American paintings and sculptures complements the Michener Collection.
The museum's involvement with Latin-American art began in the late 1960s with a major gift from the New York–based collector Barbara Duncan. The collection subsequently grew to include more than 1,500 works in diverse media by 250 artists from Central and South America and the Caribbean. The museum's print and drawing collection provides an in depth view of Western art since the Renaissance, with significant holdings of Old Master prints, twentieth century American prints, and Latin-American drawings. Artists represented in this substantial cross section include Dürer, Ribera, the Carracci brothers, Rembrandt, Goya, Géricault, Degas, Rivera, Rauschenberg, and Johns. The museum's collection of ancient art features noted examples of Corinthian, Greek black figure and red figure vases, and South Italian vases, as well as Roman portrait sculpture and Urartian metalwork. The William J. Battle Cast Collection consists of more than sixty restored plaster replicas of important antique sculptures. The collection of ancient art is supplemented by the medieval collection which spans more than nine centuries and includes thirty objects on long term loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. These collections provide a significant view of the beginnings of Western art.
In the early 1990s the European collection of thirty-four paintings enhanced the diverse range of art at the Huntington. A small but impressive group of works, this collection contained original examples of Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque paintings, including works by Luca Giordano, Il Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), and Francesco Fontebasso. Eight works from Italy and the Netherlands further highlighted the collection, and fourteen additional paintings were bequeathed to the gallery in 1991 by Jack Taylor of Austin. These acquisitions included paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, Jan Brueghel, and Nicolaes Maes.
On March 16, 1998, the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery was officially renamed the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art in honor of art patron Jack Blanton, former chairman of the Board of Regents. Later that year the Blanton Museum acquired the Suida-Manning Collection. This important collection of 700 works, assembled by art historians William Suida and Robert and Bertina Suida-Manning, consisted of a large body of Old Master paintings and drawings spanning the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries, including Boucher, Veronese, Rubens, Cambiaso, Correggio, Fragonard, Lorrain, Poussin, and Tiepolo. The donation gave the Blanton significant international stature as the repository of one of the preeminent collections of Renaissance and Baroque art in the United States.
By the late 1990s the museum announced a major fundraising initiative for the construction of a new museum complex. In 2001 University of Texas President Larry Faulkner directed the Blanton to establish the Blanton Museum Council as an advisory group. The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art's new facility, located in downtown Austin, was made available to the public in April 2006, with the opening of the 124,000-square-foot Mari and James A. Michener Building. In its first year after opening, the museum logged 172,000 visitors and ranked as the third most visited university museum in the United States.