The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum originated in 1881 in downtown St. Louis as the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts, making it the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi. In 1906, the museum moved to Forest Park and was rededicated as the St. Louis Museum of Fine Arts. The department maintaining the museum at Washington University dissolved in 1909, leaving the collection on loan to the city. The collection returned to the university in 1960 with the opening of Steinberg Hall.
Groundbreaking for the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum took place on April 14, 2004. The new facility was designed by Fumihiko Maki, a Pritzker Prize winning architect and former Washington University faculty member. The museum was rededicated as the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum on October 25, 2006. The new facility features more than 18,000 square feet of exhibition space containing galleries for rotating special exhibitions as well as selections from the permanent collection.
The Kemper Art Museum's collection was formed in large part by acquiring significant works by artists of the time, a legacy that continues today. Now one of the finest university collections in the United States, the museum contains strong holdings of 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century European and American paintings, sculptures, prints, installations, and photograph. The collection also includes some Egyptian and Greek antiquities and more than one hundred Old Master prints.
Mildred Lane Kemper graduated from Wellesley College and served as a trustee for Wellesley College. She was a Kansas City native. Her son, David Kemper requested that the museum be named in her memory. David Kemper was president and chief executive officer of Commerce Bancshares. A generous gift of $5 million from the Kemper family made the construction of the new art museum possible.