The Santa Barbara Museum of Art opened to the public on June 5, 1941, in a building that was at one time the Santa Barbara Post Office (1914–1932). The idea for an art museum first came from the local artist Colin Campbell Cooper when he learned that the post office was going to be sold. In a letter to the editor published in the Santa Barbara News-Press in July 1937, Cooper proposed that the impressive Italianate structure should be transformed into a museum. After gaining momentum in town and with the support of local businesses, politicians and art collectors the Santa Barbara Museum of Art was officially established just four years after Cooper's letter was published. The renowned Chicago architect David Adler was hired to simplify the building's façade and create the Museum's first galleries including: Ludington Court, Thayer Gallery, von Romberg Gallery, Campbell Gallery and Gould Gallery. One of the Museum's key founders, Wright S. Ludington, was instrumental in its formation and was active with the Museum for over 50 years even serving as its president in the early 1950s. Most importantly, however, Ludington donated nearly 400 objects to the Museum's permanent collection including Ancient Greek and Roman antiquities, Ancient Chinese sculptures, as well as work from modern artists including Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Joseph Stella, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.
Over its history the Museum has expanded with the addition of the Stanley R. McCormick Gallery donated by his wife Katharine McCormick in 1942 and the Sterling and Preston Morton Galleries in 1963. Significant expansions came when the Alice Keck Park Wing opened to the public in 1985 and the Jean and Austin H. Peck, Jr. Wing in 1998. The Ridley-Tree Education Center at McCormick House, a center for art education activities, was established in 1991. The newly renovated Park Wing Entrance and Luria Activities Center opened in June 2006. Beginning in Summer 2016, the SBMA embarked on the largest renovation in its history addressing critical needs of the building including: seismic retrofitting, new storage and conservation space, new roof and mechanical systems, new art receiving facility and an increase in overall gallery space.
Today, the Museum's 60,000 square feet include exhibition galleries, a Museum Store, Café, a 154-seat auditorium, a library containing 50,000 books and 55,000 slides, a Family Resource Center dedicated to participatory interactive programming and an 11,500-square-foot off-site facility, the Ridley-Tree Education Center at McCormick House.
SBMA's permanent collection includes more than 27,000 works of art, including paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs, ceramics, glass, jades, bronzes, lacquer and textiles. These works represent the arts of Asia, Europe and the Americas spanning over 5,000 years of human history. Particular strengths of the permanent collection include:
- 19th-century French art ( Barbizon School, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism)
- 19th and 20th-century American art (paintings and works on paper)
- Contemporary Regional art (20th-century and 21st-century California artists to the present)
- Western Pacific Rim photography (contemporary Chinese, Japanese, Korean)
- Buddhist art ( Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Indian)
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art maintains a diverse curatorial staff, including, Assistant Director and Chief Curator Eik Kahng,  Curator of Contemporary Art Julie Joyce.,  Curator of Asian Art Susan Tai, and Curator of Photography and New Media Charlie Wylie.