The National Gallery Society was founded in 1918, although the endeavors to found a home of Slovene art (an "acropolis" as it was named on the founding) had already been initiated towards the end of the 19th century. The Initiative to establish a national gallery was undertaken by the aristocratic polymath and correspondent Peter Radics and the mayor of Ljubljana, Dr. Ivan Hribar, followed by the Christian Art Society which, in 1907, compiled a collection of older Slovene art. In short, throughout the decades there had been kept alive the irrepressible desire of the Slovenes to have their own arts institution - a desire that was ultimately fulfilled in 1925, with the acquisition of the Narodni dom (National Home). Likewise important was the regular annual acquisition of works of art: with the legacy from the Strahl will of 1929, it may be said that the National Gallery acquired a considerable fund of works by domestic and European painters, which in 1930 was first exhibited to the public. In the same year, the commissioned casts from the Louvre were brought from Paris to Ljubljana and magnificently installed in the "Slovene Louvre". The fund from the donation by Dr. Fran Windischer - who was at the same time a patron, then from 1929 also President of the National Gallery Society - was a contribution of exceptional value to the art collection; the Windischer Fund - the first legacy in the history of the institution - is still today the foundation of the gallery's collection.
Thus from the first dreams of the initiators, and with the high cultural awareness of all Slovenes, the National Gallery developed into one of the most eminent cultural and artistic institutions. Already on 22 June 1933, the gallery had arranged the ceremonial opening of the expanded permanent collection of Slovene art. From all parts of the homeland and from abroad there arrived congratulatory telegrams and greetings-cards to mark the great event. The Gallery had achieved professional success and was beginning to enjoy a great reputation among the Slovene public.
Likewise, at this time, we must not overlook the exceptional selfless dedication of the first directors of the National Gallery of Slovenia. The first to take up the post of Director of the Gallery was Ivan Zorman; he successfully led and carried out all the renovation works in the Narodni dom, while at the same time shaping and expanding the permanent collection, always with the aid of the art-history experts, who gave their devoted support to the gallery (particularly Dr. Izidor Cankar, Dr. France Mesesnel and Dr. France Stele). The second director was Dr. Karel Dobida, who headed the gallery until September 1964. He promoted the systematic introduction of annual exhibitions, and by so doing filled in a gap in the art-history profession. The first monograph exhibitions, Ivan Grohar and the brothers Šubic, were followed in 1951 by the great monograph exhibition Fortunat Bergant, in 1957 Kremser-Schmidt, in 1959 the exhibition Mediaeval Frescoes in Slovene Lands, in 1961 The Baroque in Slovene Lands, and in 1960 and 1964 the exhibitions of Old Foreign Masters. In 1956, Dr. Emilijan Cevc issued the first publication in the collection Vodnik po umetnostnih zbirkah Narodne galerije (Umetnost srednjega veka na Slovenskem) (Guide to the art collections of the National Gallery (Medieval art in Slovene land)), and in 1956 appeared the Vodnik po Narodni galeriji (Guide to the National Gallery) with a text by Dr. Karl Dobida, presenting the history of the National Gallery and a brief survey of the permanent collection.
On 1 July 1946, the National Gallery was taken under the charge of the People's Republic of Slovenia and became a state gallery with firmer economic and organizational foundations. Despite the pressure on space caused by the increasing number of exhibitions, and the ever greater overstocking of the depots, the gallery tirelessly continued with its established programme.
When in 1951 the Moderna galerija (Museum of Modern Art) opened its permanent collection, supplemented by the fund from the National Gallery, both institutions were being directed by Dr. Karl Dobida, and the exhibitions there were also being set up by curators from the National Gallery.
Numerous further exhibitions were to follow up to the 50th anniversary of the National Gallery - at that time directed by Dr. Anica Cevc - and each individually marked an important milestone on research into the Slovene artistic past. The grand jubilee, in 1968, was celebrated by opening of the exhibition Umetnost XVII. stoletja na Slovenskem (Art of the XVII. Century in Slovene lands), which comprised painting, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, tombstones, relief, graphics and artisanal art.
One of the most important exhibitions in the art-history profession was Gotska plastika na Slovenskem (Gothic Sculpture in Slovene lands), in 1973, under the direction of Dr. Emilijan Cevc; the exhibition presented the artistic position of the Slovene provinces in the Middle Ages.
Another special turning-point was the exhibition Kitajsko slikarstvo (Chinese Painting) in 1988, which was up till then the most visited exhibition at the National Gallery. The year 1988 was also the one in which the National Gallery, by taking over the building of the Klub delegatov (Delegates Club), moved forward into the new period of architectural development. Preparations were begun for construction of the extension, and in 1991 the initial construction works for the new building were effectively begun. At the same time, in summer 1991, an account of the military aggression against Slovenia, all the staff of the National Gallery had to evacuate the art works with the greatest urgency and transfer them to safe storage in the deepest basement spaces of the gallery.
The collection of foreign masters again saw the light of day with the exhibition of 1993, under the title Evropski slikarji III (European Painters III). The gallery ceremonially opened this long-awaited exhibition in the presence of the world-renowned expert and (together with Dr. Ksenija Rozman) co-author of the exhibition, Frederico Zeri.
Amongst the projects of all-Slovene significance, one which stands out in particular is the great exhibition Gotika v Sloveniji (Gothic Art in Slovenia), which the National Gallery, under its Director Dr. Andrej Smrekar, presented in 1995 in co-operation with Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana (head of project, Dr. Janez Höfler). The exhibition comprised, on a theoretical basis, all genres of art and the entire Slovene ethnic territory, while in the critical treatment of the material numerous experts from Slovenia and abroad were involved. The project of Gothic Art in Slovenia at the same time opened the doors of the new gallery building, thus making its landmark in the history of the National Gallery. With its new spaces, the gallery enriched its material possibilities for performing the basic tasks established as far back as in 1918, i.e.: to safeguard the heritage of the Slovene people, and to transmit it to the public at the highest possible professional level. Among the large scale exhibitions we would also include the monograph survey presentation Življenje in delo baročnega slikarja Valentina Metzingerja (The Life and Work of the Baroque Painter Valentin Metzinger), by the author and long-standing Director of the National Gallery, Dr. Anica Cevc, who prepared the exhibition in the year 2000.
For the National Gallery, perhaps the most crucially important year was 2001, when construction works were completed on the new entrance hall, designed by Sadar Vuga Architects. This meant that the National Gallery had opened itself to new tasks and new forms of transmitting the cultural heritage in a world of changing relations between the viewing and the museum institutions, which - as for all national galleries worldwide - will be determined and shaped only by time.