The charter creating the Smithsonian Institution (SI) includes a provision for collecting works of art. The earliest collection of the Gallery of Art consists of prints and drawings collected by George Perkins Marsh and paintings of Indians by John Mix Stanley and Charles B. King. In 1865, a fire in the Smithsonian building destroyed most of the collection. Surviving paintings and sculptures were transferred to the Corcoran Gallery and the prints and drawings were transferred to the Library of Congress. All of the collections were transferred back to SI in 1895 and added to the George C. Catlin collection, which had been acquired in 1879.
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt recommended to Congress that the SI establish a National Gallery of Art and to accept additions to its collection. Congress failed to take action on the recommendation. In 1906, the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, interpreting the original provision in the SI charter, defined the Gallery of Art to be in fact the National Gallery of Art. Substantial additions of works of art by Harriet Lane Johnston and William T. Evans to the collection of the newly renamed National Gallery of Art (NGA) during 1906 and 1907 formed the nucleus of the new Gallery. In 1937, NGA became the National Collection of Fine Arts (NCFA) when its old name was assigned to the new museum created by Andrew W. Mellon. In 1980, NCFA was renamed the National Museum of American Art (NMAA).
The Gallery was administered by the United States National Museum (USNM) from 1906 to 1920. William Henry Holmes, Chief of the American Bureau of Ethnology, 1902-1909, and Head Curator of Anthropology, 1910-1920, served, concurrently, as Curator of NGA, 1907-1920. In 1920, Congress granted money to the NGA to become a separate Smithsonian bureau. Holmes resigned from the USNM, and served as Director until his retirement in 1932. From 1932 to 1946, Ruel P. Tolman, who previously was Curator of the Division of Graphic Arts, USNM, served as Acting Director (NGA, 1932-1937; NCFA, 1937-1946) and Director (1946-1948, at his retirement). The directors after Tolman were Thomas M. Beggs (1948-1964), David W. Scott (1965-1968), Robert Taylor Davis (interim, 1969), Joshua C. Taylor (NCFA, 1970-1980; NMAA, 1980-1981), Harry Lowe (interim, 1981-1982), and Charles C. Eldridge (1982-1988).
Prior to 1906, the art exhibits were displayed in a room in the SI Building. From 1907 to 1909, the exhibits were split between the Arts and Industries Building and the Corcoran Gallery. From 1910 to 1968, the exhibits were held in the second floor in the Natural History building (just off the Rotunda, behind the escalator). In 1939, Architect Eliel Saarinen drew plans for a Smithsonian Gallery of Art on the site where the National Air and Space Museum now stands. In 1968, the Museum opened its first permanent gallery in the renovated Old Patent Office building, which it co-occupies with the National Portrait Gallery. The building was known as the Fine Art and Portrait Gallery (1968-1981), and the American Art and Portrait Gallery (since 1981).
Record Unit 312 documents for the most part the administration of Thomas M. Beggs, Assistant Director (1947-1948) and Director (1948-1964).
Thomas M. Beggs (1899-1990, born in Brooklyn, New York) graduated from Pratt Institute, 1920; Yale University, BFA 1924; attended the Ecole Americaine des Beaux Arts, Fountainbleau; and did graduate studies at the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.
From 1926 to 1947, Beggs served successively as Instructor, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor of Art at Pomona College, Claremont, California. He also served as the head of the Art Department prior to coming to NCFA.
In 1964, Beggs was appointed Special Assistant to the Secretary for Art of the Smithsonian Institution and served in this capacity until his retirement in 1965.