The Army's official interest in art originated in World War I when eight artists were commissioned as captains in the Corps of Engineers and were sent to Europe to record the activities of the American Expeditionary Forces. At the end of the war most of the team's artwork went to the Smithsonian Institution, which at that time was the custodian of Army historical property and art.
There was no Army program for acquiring art during the interwar years, but with the advent of World War II the Corps of Engineers, drawing on its World War I experience, established a War Art Unit in late 1942. The War Art Advisory Committee, a select group of civilian art experts, nominated military and civilian artists to serve in the unit. By the spring of 1943 the committee had selected 42 artists: 23 active duty military and 19 civilians.The first artists were sent to the Pacific Theater, but in May 1943 Congress withdrew funding from the program and the War Art Unit was inactivated. The Army assigned the military artists to other units and released the civilians.
The effort to create a visual record of the American military experience in World War II was then taken up by the private secto in two different programs, one by Life magazine and one by Abbott Laboratories, a large medical supply company. When Life offered to employ civilian artists as was correspondents, the War Department agreed to provide them the same support already being given to print and film correspondents. Seventeen of nineteen civilians artists who had been selected by the War Art Committee joined Life as war correspondents. Abbott, in coordination with the Army's Office of the Surgeon General, commissioned twelve artists to record the work of the Army Medical Corps. These two programs resulted in a wide range of work b distinguished artists who had the opportunity to observe the war firsthand.
By the end of World War II the Army had acquired over 2,000 pieces of art. In June 1945 the Army established a Historical Properties Section to maintain and exhibit this collection, thus creating the nucleus of today's Army art Collection. The collection today is comprised of over 12,000 works of art. The Army Staff Artist Program was assigned to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Museum Division in 1992 and where it has been established as a permanent part of the Museum Division's Collections Branch.