The Blaffer Gallery, in the Fine Arts Building on the University of Houston campus, was founded in 1973 and named in honor of Sarah Campbell Blaffer, an heir to two oil fortunes who donated a number of paintings to the university in order to establish a teaching collection. The gallery depends on the university for operating funds and raises all funds used for programming. Although it is independent from the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, in its early years the gallery frequently lent works to the foundation, which circulated them to small museums throughout the state. In 1979 the gallery sold the teaching collection back to the foundation and used the interest on the proceeds from the sale to support programming activities. The Blaffer Gallery has since formed a modest permanent collection focused on Latin-American art, including the Charles and Katherine Fleetwood collection of pre-Columbian works, the Edward F. Heyne collection of pre-Columbian Chupicuaro figures and pottery vessels, and the Freda and Clara Radoff collection of twentieth-century Mexican prints. The collection is not on permanent display.
Under William Robinson, the director from 1974 to 1983, the gallery pursued a very ambitious exhibition program, presenting work in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video, and architecture. In 1976 the Blaffer Gallery organized a major traveling exhibition of paintings, prints, and drawings by Edvard Munch, which included works that spanned the artist's entire career. The next year the gallery followed up with another substantial exhibition, Deutscher Expressionismus = German Expressionism, an exhibition of graphic work, illustrated books, journals, posters, and photographic works that placed the expressionist style within a wider historical and cultural context. Both Edvard Munch and German Expressionism were accompanied by scholarly catalogs. Other exhibitions with catalogs organized by the Blaffer Gallery include American Fiber Art: A New Definition (1980), Milton Avery: Avery in Mexico and After (1981), Images on Stone: Two Centuries of Artists' Lithographs (1987), Ansel Adams (1992), and Darkness and Light (1993).
The Blaffer Gallery brings three or four traveling exhibitions to Houston each year. These have included major exhibitions such as Picasso, Braque, Léger: Masterpieces from Swiss Collections (1976), Frida Kahlo (1978), Vienna Moderne: 1898–1918 (1979), and The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism (1990). The Blaffer occasionally coordinates activities with other Houston museums, as in its exhibition Video: Medium and/or Message, part of a citywide symposium entitled After Avant-Garde (1985), and the 1989 exhibition German Art of the Late 80s, organized with the Contemporary Arts Museum. The Blaffer Gallery supports area artists by organizing group and solo shows. The exhibition 6 Artists/6 Idioms (1988) featured the work of local and national artists, and artists such as Michael Tracy (1973), Julian Schnabel (1988), and Gael Stack (1989) have been featured in solo exhibitions. From 1974 to 1980 and again in 1988 the gallery hosted The Houston Area Exhibition, which showcased the work of local artists.
The Blaffer Gallery organizes panels, lectures, symposia, and tours that enrich the educational value of its exhibitions. The German Expressionism and Vienna Moderne exhibitions were supplemented by symposia that subsequently published selections of papers presented. The Blaffer further serves the University of Houston by mounting exhibitions of art students. In 1989 the gallery began an innovative program in which graduate art students from the University of Houston lead groups of elementary, junior high, and high school students through tours and hands-on activities in the gallery. The Blaffer won support for this educational program from the Enron Corporation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
After William Robinson left the Blaffer in 1983, Esther de Vecsey was appointed director in 1984. Marti Mayo became director in 1986, and under her leadership the Blaffer Gallery renewed its commitment to original scholarship and organized several exhibitions toward that end. The gallery expanded its program of publishing catalogs of its exhibitions. In 1993 the director led a staff of seven full-time personnel. The Blaffer Gallery is a member of the American Association of Museums.