The Northern Illinois University Art Museum originated in the NIU School of Art during the 1960s as an exhibition center curated by the faculty. In 1970 Gallery 200 was established as a permanent exhibition space within the newly constructed art building. In 1979 the Art Gallery moved to larger quarters in Swen Parson Hall and began to acquire a permanent collection. In 1990 the Swen Parson Art Gallery became a separate academic unit within the College of Visual and Performing Arts and its name was changed from "gallery" to "museum" to reflect its growing permanent collection. In 1991 the NIU Art Museum moved into the 5000 square-foot former auditorium in historic Altgeld Hall. This space was closed in December 1998 as Altgeld Hall was prepared to undergo a major renovation project. The Art Museum reopened in 2004 in the remodeled Altgeld Galleries.
During the renovation, the NIU Art Museum offices moved to a temporary site off campus where the Museum staff oversaw its Museum without Walls program. While its main gallery was closed, the Art Museum collaborated with artists and local community ‘Partners in Art’ in the development, design and production of contemporary art installations, events and projects at various locations within the greater DeKalb area.
The NIU Chicago Gallery was founded in 1985 as an outreach unit located in Chicago’s River North gallery district. In this space, the Museum presented contemporary conceptual and installation art as well as the work of NIU faculty and students. In June 2006, facing tightening state funds, the Museum and University administration closed the NIU Chicago Gallery and reallocated resources supporting that space to the College.
The Jack Olson Memorial Gallery (formerly Gallery 200) generally shows two professional art exhibitions per year and six student group art exhibitions. The Gallery was renamed in 1996 to honor art professor and past gallery director Charles “Jack” Olson who taught at NIU from 1969 until 1994. The Olson Gallery was administered by NIU Art Museum staff from 1995 - 2004. Now, the Olson Gallery is run exclusively by the School of Art at NIU.