The San Antonio Art League, the oldest community art organization in San Antonio, developed from an artists' group with the same name that organized its first exhibition in 1894. The reorganization of the league in 1912 as a more broadly based group was undoubtedly spurred by the establishment of community art associations in other major Texas cities during the first decade of the twentieth century. The immediate impetus for the league's foundation in its present form was an exhibition of contemporary painters that was organized by the American Federation of Arts and brought to San Antonio by the Woman's Club of San Antonio and the Carnegie Library board. The success of that exhibition prompted the first meeting of the second San Antonio Art League on March 13, 1912, in Carnegie Hall. The founders, among whom were community leaders Robert J. Onderdonk, Ethel Tunstall Drought, and William Herff, listed as their goals the establishment of a free public art gallery, education of the public through exhibitions, lectures, and classes, and the acquisition of one or more art objects each year. Ethel Tunstall Drought was elected president of the organization in October 1914; she held the post for twenty-four years. Under her leadership the league accelerated its collecting activities and sponsored art exhibitions in Carnegie Hall, the Frost Building, and the Municipal Auditorium until 1926. Together with the San Antonio Museum Association, the San Antonio Conservation Society, the San Antonio Scientific Society, and interested city officials, the San Antonio Art League cofounded one of Texas's first major museums, the Witte Museum, which opened to the public in 1926. During their forty-five year association, the league was on the museum's board of trustees and occupied galleries on the museum's second floor, receiving more space as the years progressed. Initially the league's permanent collection was displayed in the southern gallery, with two other galleries reserved for traveling exhibitions and shows of local artists' work. Exhibitions were supplemented by lectures on a variety of topics. The San Antonio Art League also provided space in its galleries for Saturday art classes, which were initially funded by the public school system and later became the Museum School of Art under league sponsorship. The school was renamed the San Antonio Art Institute and moved to the aviary on Marion Koogler McNay's estate in 1942, where it was sponsored by the league until 1962.
The San Antonio Art League has provided strong support for local artists throughout its history. The league's highly successful Texas wildflower exhibitions of 1927–29, in which Edgar B. Davis awarded $50,000 in prizes, prompted interaction between the local and national communities of artists, as did the league's sponsorship of Southern State Art League exhibitions at the Witte Museum. The Local Artists Exhibition, a competitive exhibition established in 1930 that continues today, is open to all artists living within a sixty-mile radius of San Antonio. Since 1945 the league has sponsored the Art Jamboree, enabling artists to display and sell their work to the public. Perhaps the most valuable program for artists is the Artist of the Year award, also begun in 1945, which entitles the honoree to a month-long retrospective exhibition accompanied by a catalog and reception. In the early 1970s the Witte Museum, under the leadership of director Jack R. McGregor, had begun the campaign to establish the San Antonio Museum of Art and narrow the Witte's focus to science and history. The San Antonio Art League consequently moved to the Belgian Pavilion at HemisFair Plaza in 1971 and in 1974 moved again to the Koehler Cultural Center. In 1988 the San Antonio Art League purchased its present location, a remodelled carriage house at 130 King William Street. The new facility provided more security, climate controls, and space than prior locations for the league's permanent collection, which had grown to over 300 objects by 1990. Notable Texan artists such as Robert and Julian Onderdonk, José Arpa, Emma Richardson Cherry, E. G. Eisenlohr, Martha Mood, Charles Umlauf, and Amy Freeman Lee, are represented in the league's collection, which contains artworks in a variety of media, including oil paintings, watercolors, graphic art, photography, ceramics, sculpture, furniture, and decorative art objects. The San Antonio Art League is a nonprofit organization that is supported by its membership and donations.