The Museum of Northern Arizona was founded in 1928 by a committee of local citizens that included Dr. Harold S. Colton and Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton. Dr. Colton was trained as a zoologist and Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1909. Ms. Colton was an active and critically acclaimed painter and the author of two books and more than twenty articles. She served as the new museum’s first Curator of Art and Ethnology for twenty years. Colton frequently worked with Native American artists in an effort to bring greater recognition and acceptance of their work into the larger art community. In addition to her work as the curator and as an artist Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton was an active and vocal advocate for art education for all school children.
In 1929 Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton organized a series of annual art and craft exhibitions for the purpose of bringing together artists and crafts people from around Arizona. The Arizona Artists Arts and Crafts Exhibitions were presented at MNA from 1929 through 1935. Many notable artists participated in the exhibitions including Kate Corey, Gunnar Widforss and Lillian Wilhelm Smith.
During the 1930s Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton along with Virgil Hubert worked with Hopi artists Fred Kabotie and Paul Saufkie to develop a unique and commercially viable jewelry style for Hopi jewelers. After Hubert drew initial designs inspired by traditional Hopi iconography they were refined by Kabotie and Safkie. The resultant style came to be known as Hopi Overlay.
Virgil Hubert later served as the second Curator of Fine Arts.
Barton Wright served as the Curator of Fine Arts from 1955 until 1977.
After working as a volunteer assistant for Barton Wright for a number of years, Katherine Chase was appointed Curator of Fine Art in 1977, a position she held until 1987. In the early 1990's she was appointed an MNA Research Associate and she continued her work with the Fine Arts Collection and exhibitions. She served in this capacity until 1997. Chase is the author of Brushstrokes on the Plateau, an overview of the Museum’s Fine Arts Collection and art on the Colorado Plateau since the late nineteenth century.
In 2008, after serving for three years as a guest curator, Alan Petersen was appointed Curator of Fine Art and is MNA’s current curator of fine art.