The Ackland Art Museum was founded through the bequest of William Hayes Ackland (1855-1940) to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Ackland Trust provided the funds to construct the museum building, and that trust continues to provide for the purchase of works of art.
Mr. Ackland, a native of Nashville, Tennessee, graduated from Nashville University and received a law degree from Vanderbilt University. In 1936, although not a collector himself, he took steps to establish a museum at a southern university. As the words of his tomb suggest, “he wanted the people of his native South to know and love the fine arts.” He was also concerned that the museum be connected with a “great university” with existing cultural interests.
When Mr. Ackland died in 1940, he left his bequest to Duke University. Duke’s trustees, however, objected to stipulations that Mr. Ackland be buried in a museum named after him and that his money be managed by trustees in Washington, D.C. They refused the bequest and started nine years of litigation that resulted in the award of the Ackland Trust to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the other schools previously considered by Mr. Ackland.
Further delays were caused by the unavailability of building materials. Designed in the Georgian style by Eggers and Higgins of New York, the red brick William Hayes Ackland Memorial Art Center was dedicated on September 20, 1958. It comprised exhibition galleries, an art library, classrooms, studios, and offices.
Beginning with a group of objects transferred to the Museum from the University, and with 5,000 prints acquired by UNC-Chapel Hill in 1951 from the estate of New York advertising executive Burton Emmett, a collection was built primarily of western art spanning the centuries from antiquity to the present. Around 1980, the Museum’s acquisitions began to include significant Indian, Chinese, and Japanese objects, and substantial attention was devoted to drawings and photographs. To help reach visitors with various interests, the Museum’s volunteer docents were reorganized and trained to deal with the Ackland’s expanding audiences, including school groups and the town’s retired citizens.
With the creation of the Hanes Art Center in 1983, space formerly occupied by the Art Department was made available for Museum purposes. In 1985, funds were requested for the total renovation of the building. In the fall of 1987, the Ackland closed its doors to the public and renovation was begun. The completely renewed galleries were reopened in December 1990 and March 1992, making available the spaces and enlarged collection at the Ackland today.