The origins of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums can be traced to 1873 when local flour merchant and art collector John Forbes White and a number of local art collectors decided to hold a public exhibition to display their collections. The gallery was designed by Alexander Marshall MacKenzie in 1885, with a striking interior of coloured granite columns. It has a unique portrait collection, initiated by Alexander MacDonald (1831-1884), a local granite merchant and collector of fine art, who commissioned over ninety uniformly sized portrait heads. With continued acquisitions of portraits, the entire collection now includes notable paintings by William Hogarth, Allan Ramsay and Joshua Reynolds.
An impressive collection of modern work includes pieces by David Bomberg, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, Francis Bacon, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Bridget Riley. It has a strong contemporary collection with works by Damien Hirst, Mat Collishaw, Richard Wilson and Rachel Maclean.
The Contemporary Art Society has also contributed to its significant craft collection. Between 2003 and 2006 Aberdeen Art Gallery was part of the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland (NCSS), a CAS initiative that enabled the acquisition of contemporary works in a varitey of media for Scottish museums and art galleries. Aberdeen actively collected contemporary metalwork focusing upon makers from the Pacific Rim, resulting in a strong collection of work with pieces by Robert Foster, Hiroshi Suzuki and Koji Hatakeyama. The permanent collection is complemented by a programme of contemporary exhibitions by artists of international standing.
Between 2015 and 2019 Aberdeen Art Gallery underwent a redevelopment supported by Aberdeen City Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund and led by Hoskins Architects.