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,[better source needed] 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,[better source needed]Ruth Weisberg, Barbara Barrett,[better source needed]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,[better source needed]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[better source needed] 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.
The Council of 100 presents the Distinguished Woman Artist Award annually to a woman artist who has spent thirty or more years in the studio and has created a unique and prestigious body of work.
The Fresno Art Museum was the first museum in the United States to devote a full year of their exhibition schedule, 1986/87, exclusively for women artists. Fresno was a fitting place to do this, since, in the early 1970s, Judy Chicago brought attention to women artists when she taught the first feminist art class in the country at California State University, Fresno.
In order to finance the cost of this year of exhibitions, it was necessary to match a grant for $25,000. Robert Barrett,[better source needed] executive director of the museum, suggested the means to raise the funds; to enlist 100 women from the community, each of whom would donate $250 to the museum for this project. Weekly meetings were scheduled to inform the invited women about the project and their involvement with it. The group would be called the Council of 100. Over one hundred women participated and many of those women continue to support this program today.
The year of exhibitions drew national attention and interest and culminated in a three-day symposium in May 1987. The symposium brought together an important group of artists, art scholars, critics and museum directors from across the country. This national interest and recognition of the Fresno Art Museum and its program for women artists continues today through the efforts of the Council of 100.
The energy created by that year of women artists' exhibitions, as well as the symposium, was so stimulating for the Fresno Art Museum audience that the Council of 100, headed by Virginia Farquhar, decided to keep its role alive at the Museum by expanding its mission to include the following objectives: (1) in collaboration with the Fresno Art Museum, select an outstanding woman artist annually to present an exhibition of her work at the Museum, (2) publish a catalog/brochure documenting that exhibition, and (3) set up a series of lectures throughout the year featuring outstanding women artists from the Fresno region and beyond. The woman chosen each year must be a working artist and must have been working as an artist for 30 years or more.
For 29 years, the Fresno Art Museum's Council of 100, remains a unique organization devoted to recognizing outstanding women in the arts. The Council, working in collaboration with the Museum, has garnered recognition for its valuable contribution of honoring contemporary women artists.
Since the spring of 1988, this program has honored the following internationally recognized artists with the annual Distinguished Woman Artist Award and Exhibition:
1988 - June Wayne 1989 - Helen Lundeberg 1990 - Ruth Weisberg 1991 - Viola Frey 1992 - Ynez Johnston[better source needed] 1993 - Betye Saar 1994 - Rachel Rosenthal 1995 - Ruth Bernhard 1996 - Bella Feldman 1997 - Claire Falkenstein 1998 - Jo Hanson 1999 - Inez Storer 2000 - Angie Bray 2001 - Ruth Asawa 2002 - Ruth Rippon 2003 - Nancy Genn 2004 - Olga Seem 2005 - Junko Chodos 2006 - 20th Anniversary: Eighteen Profiles 2007 - Gwynn Murrill 2008 - June Schwarcz 2009 - Joan Tanner 2010 - Kathryn Jacobi 2011 - Amalia Mesa-Bains 2012 - Arline Fisch 2013 - Ann Page 2014 - Mildred Howard 2015 - Margaret Lazzari 2016 - Hung Liu 2017 - Joan Schulze 2018 - Kay Sekimachi
The caliber of these honorees has elevated the status of the Council of 100's Distinguished Woman Artist Award, and has brought the Fresno Art Museum well-deserved national recognition from many organizations including the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.