In 1919, philanthropist Joseph G. Butler, Jr., selected the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White to create the first building in the United States specifically constructed as a museum of American art. Listed on the Register of National Historic Places, the museum is dedicated exclusively to the collection, preservation, and exhibition of American art and holds over 22,000 works of art.
In 1981, Louis Zona became Director and focused on restoration of the physical plant and programming. A series of strategic plans adopted by the Board, focused on expansion of the building and enhancing the endowment. In 1987, a West Wing addition doubled the size of the building creating galleries, classrooms, a research library, archive, and storage vaults. The original galleries were refurbished, making possible the presentation of the collection in historical sequence focusing on key works, artists, and movements. In 1989, a print gallery to preserve and exhibit of works on paper was dedicated. To commemorate the museum’s 75th anniversary, the first scholarly catalogue of the collection, Master Paintings from The Butler Institute of American Art was published and in 2010, Masterworks from The Butler Institute of American Art, expanded on the first to include sculpture and new acquisitions. The Beecher Center addition devoted to new media was dedicated in 2000.
The Institute received professional accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums in 1989 (re-accreditation in 2009). In 2003, a pavilion including a café and gift shop opened. In 2005, the church next to the museum was purchased and renamed Butler North Education Center housing classrooms, and meeting and performance spaces. In 2013, additional galleries, bridge, and accessible elevator were completed. A series of capital projects from 2015 to 2019, included an elevator replacement, stained glass preservation, and masonry restoration of the entire main building façade.