The Tyler Museum of Art, located on the east side of the Tyler Junior College campus, exhibits art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly contemporary works by artists from Texas and surrounding states. The museum began as a project of the Tyler Junior League in 1967 and was chartered in 1969 as a nonprofit institution. The Junior League's efforts to establish a museum were reinforced by Tyler Juried Arts, Incorporated, which had organized competitive art exhibitions in Tyler for a number of years. The museum opened to the public on April 1, 1971, with the inaugural exhibition American Painting: 1900 to the Present. The 17,000-square-foot museum building, which was designed in a contemporary style by E. Davis Wilcox and Associates, contains two large galleries and one smaller one, supplemented by a reference library, offices, a museum bookstore, and a café. The Tyler Museum of Art is a private corporation funded by contributions from the public, with additional assistance from the city of Tyler and Tyler Junior College. The Texas Commission on the Arts and the Tyler Independent School District have supplied additional funds for the museum's education programs. A board of nineteen trustees oversees museum activities, and daily operations are guided by the museum director. Initially the board of trustees and founding director Robert Kjorlien decided not to collect art, a decision that allowed the museum to channel available funds into an ambitious exhibition program. Under Kjorlien's leadership the museum introduced challenging contemporary art. In order to cultivate a taste for avant-garde art, Kjorlien simultaneously exhibited established artists and more contemporary artists. The nineteenth-century Spanish artist Francisco de Goya was paired with twentieth-century Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, for example, and nineteenth-century American Impressionist painter George Inness was exhibited with twentieth-century abstract painter Jasper Johns. The Tyler Museum of Art has drawn on the resources of major museums and galleries in Texas to mount many of its exhibitions. From 1972 to 1974 the museum participated in a consortium of museums organized by the Texas Commission of Arts and Humanities, in which exhibitions from large southwestern museums were circulated to six smaller ones, including the Tyler museum. The Tyler Museum of Art continues to share its resources with other regional museums.
The museum has also supported innovative work by contemporary regional artists. It organized solo museum exhibitions early in the careers of artists James Surls (1974), Vernon Fisher (1973, 1975), Keith Carter (1977), and Clyde Connell (1979). The museum exhibited large-scale projects by George Green, Jack Mims, Jim Roche, and Robert Wade, artists from the Oak Cliff area of Dallas (1972); lithographs by Dallas printmaker Juergen Strunck (1975); images by San Antonio photographer Judy Bankhead (1980); and mixed media installations by Celia Alvarez Munoz (1988), an El Paso native who works in Arlington. Texas artists working in more traditional styles, such as realist painter Ancel Nunn, sculptor Karl Umlauf, and folk sculptor Isaac Smith, have also been featured at the museum. Many of the exhibitions organized by the Tyler museum have been accompanied by catalogues, some of them substantial, and a few of the exhibitions have traveled to other locations. Kjorlien's successor, Ron Gleason, who came to the museum in 1974, further developed the museum's commitment to challenging regional art. One of the most successful exhibitions organized under Gleason was the 1980 exhibition Response, which emphasized the diversity of styles and media used by Texas artists through the juxtaposition of works by photographers Gay Block and Al Souza, sculptors Roy Fridge and Nicholas Wood, painters Sam Gummelt and Richard Shaffer, and installation artists Jim Malone and Ed Blackburn, among others. From 1981 to 1985 James Weaver served as director; he coordinated such exhibitions as Depictions of Advent in Early European Art (1983), Midnight Air: Don Beason (1983), and Concepts in Construction: 1910–1980 (1983), which exhibited works by Russian Suprematists and Constructivists, the Dutch De Stijl, and German Bauhaus groups with such contemporary sculptors as Carl Andre, Frank Stella, and Al Held. Gleason returned to the museum in 1985.
The museum's original exhibition programming was recognized in 1977, when the Tyler Museum of Art became the first United States museum without a permanent collection to be accredited by the American Association of Museums. Ten years later, however, the board of trustees approved a policy to develop a permanent collection of nineteenth and twentieth century art. Begun by a gift of Terry Allen's Iron Triangle (1987), the permanent collection has grown to over 200 objects that reflect the innovative spirit of the museum's exhibition programming. The collection includes mixed-media works by Celia Alvarez Munoz and Vernon Fisher, photographs by Keith Carter and MANUAL (Suzanne Bloom and Ed Hill), and a sculpture by Clyde Connell. Wayne Kimball, John Hernandez, Ann Stautberg, Bill Montgomery, Wendy Watriss, Judy Bankhead, Ed Blackburn, and Jack Mims are some of the other artists represented in the permanent collection. The museum supplements exhibitions with lectures, gallery talks, films, and informal gallery tours. It also sponsors musical and theatrical performances. Musicians Joe Ely, Jimmie Gilmore, Butch Hancock, David Halley, Rosie Flores, and Christine Albert have performed at the museum as part of its ongoing Songwriter Series, and such actor-writers as Jo Harvey Allen have performed plays there. The museum has also hosted a Texas Writers' Series in which such authors as Dave Hickey, Michael Berryhill, and Allen Glick have read their work. The education department of the museum offers gallery tours and related workshops for students. In 1991 director Ron Gleason led a staff of four full-time and ten part-time employees. The Tyler Museum of Art is a member of the American Association of Museums, the Texas Association of Museums, and the Texas Association for the Promotion of the Arts, an art lobby group.