The University of Sydney recognised from its inception that museums and collections could play a significant role in defining a public identity. Among the first donors was one of its founders Sir Charles Nicholson who gave some 30 European paintings, tapestries and sculptures in 1865. Since then more than 7,000 artworks have been acquired principally by bequest, gift, and commission. Major benefactors have included the modernist artist Dr J.W. Power, his wife Edith Power and most recently Justice RP Meagher. Today the strength of the collection is Australian painting, including Indigenous art, as well as significant holdings in European and Asian art.
Highlights include works by artists such as Russell Drysdale, Grace Cossington-Smith, Margaret Preston, Colin McCahon, Frank & Margel Hinder, JW Power, Jeffrey Smart, Lloyd Rees, Margo Lewers, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Imants Tillers, Matthias Gerber, Christian Thompson and Daniel Boyd.