According to the museum website, the museum descends from the Fresno Art League, a group of local artists that was founded in the late 1940s and that gathered sufficient community support to incorporate as the Fresno Art Center in 1949 and to erect an Art Center building in Radio Park in 1960. The American Association of Museums granted the Art Center accreditation in 1973.
Under the direction of Robert Barrett, in 1985 the name was changed to Fresno Arts Center and Museum, and then again in 1988 changed again to Fresno Art Museum. Robert Barrett, the Museums Director and Curator through 1980 up until 1994 was the driving force by the museums expansion, collection growth, establishment of an endowment fund, growth in adult education through a partnership with Fresno City College and even attempted to raise the and tourism in an initiative called "Arts to Zoo".
The Museum worked closely with major California galleries such as Mekler Gallery, Ankrum Gallery,Jack Rutberg,Toby C Moss Gallery, Dorothy Goldeen and Jan Baum Gallery who had access to major California art collections as well as held amazing inventory of major California artists. With Robert Barrett as curator, the museum put together exhibitions with printed catalogs art artist including Picasso, Goya, Pissaro, Helen Lundeberg, Ynez Johnston,Ruth Weisberg, Barbara Barrett, Frank Lobdell, Lee Mullican, Wayne Thiebaud,F Scott Hess, David Ligare, Darren Waterston,Betye Saar, Robert Cremean, Rodan, Fletcher Benton,Claire Falkenstein, Emerson Woelffer, August Madrigal, Gronk, Frank Romero, Gilbert Magu Lujan, Kathryn Jacobi,Alan Sonfist, Nancy Yodelman, EZ Smith, Melvin Schuler, Bruce Beasely, Christo, Morris Broderson,Kathy Wosika, Tom FoolerySusan Sloan Lewis,Clement Renzi, Beth Van Hoesen, Mark Adams, James H Shepard,Millard Sheets many of which where career changers for the artist. An excellent example is the "DJUNA set" an exhibition and catalog of June Wayne's lithographs which revitalized her career.
The Fresno Art Museum while under Robert Barrett's leadership along with Board Member George Y Blair in late 1990 set up a trust to acquire the estate, including the artwork of renowned American sculptor Robert Cremean. After Barrett's departure from the Museum, the relationship became tenuous. Cremean accused the museum, specifically Blair, of not living up to the contractual agreement associated with the trust. In particular, the contract stated the museum would house as well as display on an ongoing basis Cremean's art. With Barrett's departure, fundraising slowed, and the museum's board floundered in hiring a new director. Thus, without any art leadership, Cremean became frustrated. Eventually, Cremean sued Blair and the Fresno Art Museum which ended in the dissolution of the contract. While some very exquisite examples of Robert Cremean's work still reside at the Fresno Art Museum, Cremean moved his home state of Ohio taking his collection and estate with him.