The first donations of artwork to Wheaton Female Seminary were portraits of Wheaton family members, including Eliza Wheaton Strong in whose memory the seminary (now Wheaton College) was founded. Over time, items and documents associated with the history of the seminary, and later the college, became part of the Marion B. Gebbie Archives & Special Collections housed in the Madeleine Clark Wallace Library.

In the mid-1970s, various collections of artwork and ethnographic objects owned by the college were compiled to form the Permanent Collection. Most of the collection has been donated by, in honor of, or due to the efforts of alumni, some of whom, such as Madeline Hunter Farnsworth (Class of 1937), actively collected for the collection. Other donors, including Eleanor Norcross (Class of 1872), were themselves artists and made gifts of their work and of artists they admired.

A third set of donors includes individuals who made gifts to Wheaton because they were acquainted with faculty or staff or wanted to enable students to study diverse artistic forms and media. Today, donations remain very important, but several endowed funds provide for the purchase of artwork chosen to enhance teaching and research. In addition, the Wheaton College Friends of Art annually purchases artwork from the Senior Visual Art Majors Exhibition and then donates it to the collection, which also holds artwork by alumni artists and Studio Art faculty.