What is now the Madison Art Collection began as a series of gifts to the university. The most significant donation was a large collection of classical antiquities from Drs. John and Bessie Sawhill in 1976. The JMU Foundation held all gifted objects in trust for the university until July of 2003 when the Madison Art Collection was officially created and all objects were transferred to the university.
When the university officially received the collection from the foundation, it was named the Madison Art Collection and established it as a department under the authority of the College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA). Dr. Kathryn Stevens was hired as the full time director and she supervised the construction of a secure and climate controlled storage facility in the FCSC that could additionally be used by small groups wishing to study collection objects.
Mrs. Melanie Brimhall was hired as a full-time director of education, in which role she created an cross-disciplinary progressive K-12 education program that incorporated Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).
The Madison Art Collection was given an exhibition space which was named The Gallery @ Festival. It hosted rotating exhibits drawn from the collection and was extensively used by the K-12 outreach program.
James Madison University accepted the life's work of Mr. Charles Alvin Lisanby, the only artistic designer in the Academy of Television Art and Sciences' Hall of Fame.
The Madison Art Collection was given additional space in the Festival Conference and Student Center to house the increased size of its holdings. Skyline Museum was created as its new exhibition space and the Gallery @ Festival was turned into the Charles Lisanby Center. The Madison Art Collection room became storage only.