History of the Walters Art Museum

The Walters Art Museum started with the gift from collector and philanthropist Henry Walters of his extensive art collection, two buildings, and an endowment to the city of Baltimore, “for the benefit of the public.” The museum—then called the Walters Art Gallery—opened in November 1934, in the Palazzo building on North Charles Street.

Henry inherited his father William T. Walters’ collection, which consisted primarily of European and Asian art. A Pennsylvania native turned Baltimorean, William T. Walters amassed a fortune in the liquor, banking, and railroad industries. Henry continued to expand the collection, with a goal of creating an encyclopedic museum based on the tastes of his time—he acquired manuscripts, arms and armor, and Islamic, Russian, and ancient Near East art. Henry Walters’ generosity in creating the Walters Art Gallery put him on a par with some of his era’s other legendary philanthropists, such as J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie.

In the decades since it opened, the Walters has expanded both its architectural footprint and the breadth and depth of its collection. The Centre Street building and 1 West Mount Vernon Place have joined the Palazzo building as showcases for art. Two other buildings in the Mount Vernon neighborhood house museum offices. And through the generosity of donors and insightful purchases by museum curators, the Walters’ collection has grown from 22,000 objects at the time of Henry’s gift to now more than 36,000, and expanded across a broad arc of time, geography, and culture—with works from the ancient Mediterranean, Africa, East Asia, Middle East, the Americas, and elsewhere.

Today’s Walters Art Museum builds on Henry’s legacy and is among America’s most distinctive art museums. In 2000, the Walters Art Gallery became the Walters Art Museum, a change that underscored our role as a major public cultural institution. In 2006, the museum eliminated general admissions charges, and in 2015 eliminated admission charges for exhibitions. The museum has become a national leader in arts education, serving over 70,000 participants with its public programs and 40,000 PreK–12 students. Today, the Walters experience is focused on the interests of our many and diverse audiences and is free of charge, continuing the museum’s tradition to be “for the benefit of the public.”

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