The gallery opened in 1939 with much of the initial funding from the gallery coming from two bequests one from Robert Chipperfield and another from Frederick William Smith. The gallery was damaged during World War II and repairing this damaged delayed its reopening until 1946.
The gallery's art collection covers six centuries of European art history, with over 5,300 works in its fine art collection. It is housed in an example of 1930s municipal architecture. The gallery holds a Designated Collection, considered of national importance.
Highlights of the permanent collection include a 14th-century altarpiece by Allegretto Nuzi, of the Italian Giambattista Pittoni; the Perseus series by Burne-Jones; paintings by the Camden Town Group and The London Group; sculpture by Jacob Epstein, Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Henri Gaudier Brzeska, Richard Deacon and Tony Cragg; and Richard Long photographs.
Thousands of visitors explore the exhibitions and displays every month and, through a programme of educational activities, Southampton City Art Gallery provides opportunities for greater access, involvement and understanding of art for people of all ages. The gallery's educational service works closely with a range of professional visual artists, including Melanie Rose, Debra Marsh, Jo Bresloff and Alastair Eales.
In November 2012, it was announced that the gallery's opening times were likely to be significantly reduced, as part of Southampton City Council's drive to save £20 million. On 1 April 2013, the art gallery's opening times changed to the following times: