The University Art Galleries is the result of a tradition of exhibiting art that began with the founding of USD. Art exhibitions have been sponsored by The University of South Dakota for many years, with the first historical reference to such activity being an art show held in conjunction with graduation ceremonies in 1891. Art exhibitions became the primary responsibility of the Department of Art after it was established in 1897.
Over the years, the Art Department has presented exhibits in temporary locations and operated art galleries at a variety of sites on campus, including Old Main, Slagle Hall, the I. D. Weeks Library, Student Union and the W.H. Over State Museum.
Throughout its history, the University has also collected art on a sporadic basis for embellishment and for educational purposes. With the opening of the Warren M. Lee Center for the Fine Arts in 1974, a permanent art gallery was established with the expectation that it would be the impetus for the development of a full-fledged art museum. The University Art Galleries of The University of South Dakota was formally established in 1977 as an institutional academic support unit administered through the College of Fine Arts.