The National Gallery Society was founded in 1918, although the endeavors to establish a home of Slovenian 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 Slovenian art. In short, throughout the decades there had been kept alive the irrepressible desire of the Slovenians to have their own arts institution − a desire that was ultimately fulfilled in 1925, with the acquisition of the Narodni dom (National Hall). 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 1927 the commissioned casts from the Louvre were brought from Paris to Ljubljana and magnificently installed in the "Slovenian 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 Slovenians, 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 Slovenian 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; until 1950 he successfully led and carried out all the renovation works in the Narodni dom Palace, 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, on 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 Foreign Old 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 Slovenian land)), and in 1958 appeared the Vodnik po Narodni galeriji (Guide to the National Gallery) with a text by Dr Karl Dobida, presenting the history of the 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 of Slovenia, both institutions were being directed by Dr Karl Dobida, and the exhibitions there were also being set up by curators from the Gallery.
Numerous further exhibitions were to follow up to the 50th anniversary of the National Gallery of Slovenia − at that time directed by Dr Anica Cevc − and each individually marked an important milestone on research into the Slovenian 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 Slovenian Lands), which comprised painting, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, tombstones, reliefs, graphics and artisanal art. One of the most important exhibitions in the art-history profession was Gotska plastika na Slovenskem (Gothic Sculpture in Slovenian lands), in 1973, under the direction of Dr Emilijan Cevc; the exhibition presented the artistic position of the Slovenian 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 of Slovenia. The year 1988 was also the one in which the 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 by the architect Edvard Ravnikar were effectively begun. At the same time, in summer 1991, on account of the military aggression against Slovenia, all the staff of the National Gallery of Slovenia had to evacuate the works of art with the greatest urgency and transfer them to safe storage in the deepest basement spaces of the gallery.
When Dr Anica Cevc, the long-time Director, retired in autumn 1991, she was succeeded by Dr Andrej Smrekar.
The collection of “foreign” old masters again saw the light of day with the exhibitions Foreign Masters from 14th to 20th Century (1983), European Still Lifes from Slovenian Collections (1989) and European Painters from Slovenian Collections (1993). The world-renowned expert Frederico Zeri and Dr Ksenija Rozman authored the latter exhibition. It laid the foundations for the opening of the Permanent Collection of European Painters in the New Wing of the Gallery in 1997.
The Narodni dom Palace was declared a cultural monument in 1993. In 1995, the society called Friends of the National Gallery of Slovenia was founded, realising an idea that went back the very beginning of the National Gallery Society in 1918. Amongst the projects of all-Slovenian significance, one which stands out in particular, is the great exhibition Gotika v Sloveniji (Gothic Art in Slovenia), which the Gallery presented in 1995 in co-operation with the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. The exhibition comprised, on a theoretical basis, all genres of art and the entire Slovene ethnic territory, and involved numerous experts from Slovenia and abroad for the critical treatment of the material. The project at the same time opened the doors of the new gallery building, thus making its landmark in the history of the National Gallery of Slovenia. With its new spaces, the gallery enriched its physical possibilities for performing the basic tasks established as far back as in 1918, i.e.: to safeguard the heritage of the Slovenian people, and to transmit it to the public at the highest possible professional level. Diverse series of exhibitions is proof of ambitious and thoughtful programming. Among the large scale exhibitions we should mention the outstanding exhibition Zakladi slovenskih cerkva (Treasures of Slovenian Churches) (1999) and 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 Gallery, Dr Anica Cevc, who prepared the exhibition in the year 2000.
For the National Gallery of Slovenia, 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.
Noteworthy was the exhibition of prints by Marjan Pogačnik, who donated his collection to the Gallery in 2002. That year, the Gallery programme was enriched by exhibitions dedicated to Biedermaier painter Jožef Tominc and to Baroque painting in Gorizia. The latter represented the first comprehensive art-history study of an entire crown land in Slovenia. Also based on field studies were the exhibitions on Zorzi Ventura Brajković (2003) and on Master HGG, Brajković’s contemporary from central Slovenia and Croatia (2004); 2005 saw the exhibition on Almanach, a younger and mysterious painter, who was presented within the context of his contemporaries. That same year the Gallery highlighted neoclassical painter Franc Kavčič/Caucig. His pictures for the Auersperg Palace in Vienna followed in two years and the themes of Antiquity in 2010. Exhibition of manuscripts from the Žiče Charterhouse in 2006 was unique for its rare and fragile artefacts. Portraits of Bishops of Ljubljana, resulting from a large-scale research project, followed in 2007.
The 2008 relocation of the Robba Fountain to the Gallery drew much attention. The long-planned undertaking was carried out during the tenure of Dr Barbara Jaki, the Director of the National Gallery of Slovenia since 2005. The occasion was marked by a symposium on the Robba Fountain and Robba’s oeuvre in 2010.
Slovenian Impressionists and Their Time 1890–1920 was a landmark exhibition and research project of the Gallery. Realized in 2008, the grand-scale exhibition saw a rapturous reception by the public. It initiated the exhibition of Slovenian Impressionists in the Parisian Petit Palais in 2013. In 2009, a travelling exhibition Works of Art from Prekmurje was mounted, one of rare regional overviews of art styles. The same year saw two exhibitions featuring works on paper, First Prints and Drawing in Slovenia I. The oeuvre of a sculptor Aljoz Gangl followed in 2010. New acquisitions of the National Gallery of Slovenia between 2001 and 2010 were presented in detail in 2012. In 2014 and 2015, paintings and sculpture of the Government Art Collection were showcased to the public. The Gallery took over the custody of the Collection from the Executive Council of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia in 1986.
Long past its due, the renovation of the Narodni dom Palace and the expansion of the Gallery started in 2012. The project was concluded with the inauguration of the new Permanent Collection of Art of Slovenia on 27 January 2016. At the grand opening, the bronze portrait of Dr Anica Cevc (1926–2011), a longtime Director of the Gallery, was unveiled. The sculpture is the work of Mirsad Begić.
The complex of the National Gallery of Slovenia is made of three integrated wings. It encompasses 12,670 m2, with exhibition spaces covering 3,955 m2. API ARHITEKTI bureau led and coordinated the renovation, in partnership with the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia and the Restoration Centre of IPCHS.
Underlining the need for the expansion of exhibition spaces is the fact that between 2000 and 2015 the Gallery organized and hosted over 150 large-scale exhibitions of domestic and international art production, in addition to Revelations, a monthly series of small-scale exhibitions, Harmony of the Spheres, a cycle of concerts and lectures, and robust activities of the Friends of the National Gallery of Slovenia.