The Pretoria City Council started a permanent collection of paintings from artists such as the German Baroque painter Joachim von Sandrart (1606 – 1688), the Flemish portrait painter Cornelis de Vos (1584 – 1651) and the Dutch landscape painter Jan van Goyen (1596 – 1656) for its offices at the beginning of the 1930s. In 1932 after the death of the mining tycoon and supporter of the arts, Sir Max Michaelis (1851 – 1932), his wife, Lady Michaelis (Lillian Elizabeth) (1896 – 1976) donated fifty-six artworks of the 17th century Dutch and Flemish artists to the city. Her donations also included South African works by artists such as Pieter Wenning, Frans Oerder, Jacob Hendrik Pierneef, Irma Stern and Anton van Wouw. The growing collection of artworks was accommodated in the Pretoria Town Hall until 1955 when the city decided to build a gallery.
The structure was begun in 1962 and became home to paintings, photographs, graphics, ceramics, sculpture, beadwork, drawings as well as tapestries. The Pretoria Art Museum, initially known as Pretoria Civic Arts Museum opened its doors to the public on 20 May 1964. During the same year Nelson Mandela and his comrades, branded terrorists and enemies of the state, were handed death sentences. Furthermore, in 1964 the Pretoria Art Museum acquired its first painting by a Black artist. Subsequently it started to collect works from West and Central Africa while at the same time collecting prints from Europe and the USA by artists such as Henry Moore, Paul Gauguin, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.
The Museum is situated in the north of Gauteng Province, east of Pretoria in the suburb of Arcadia. This national heritage site has children’s art gallery and reference library. It occupies a city block between Wessels, Francis Baard (formerly Schoeman), Johan and Park Streets. The entrance of the Museum is at Wessels Street. Over the years it has undergone various changes and makeovers.
In the middle of the 1990s the Museum started to host the New Signatures Art Competition. The Museum has paid staff, which is complemented by Friends of the Pretoria Art Museum. The Friends are instrumental in the advancement of the Museum such as the sourcing of artworks. They also help to stage temporary national and international exhibitions, educational projects as well as cultural events. As part of its fund raising initiatives, recreational and intellectual stimulation in the form of film screenings, special music evenings, talks and guided tours are offered. A nominal entrance fee to the Museum is charged.