The first art instructor at the University of Nevada in Reno was Katherine Lewers (1868–1945), who began teaching freehand drawing in 1905. For the most part, the program served the specialized needs of teaching, engineering, and home economics majors until 1939 when Lewers retired. Her successor was Helen Joslin, a traditional painter whose methods of instruction seemed to overlook the major trends in modern art outside Nevada. This tendency changed in 1947 when Oklahoma native and painter Craig Sheppard (1913–1987) was brought to campus to build a more comprehensive, post-World War II curriculum. The program was expanded in 1952 when a second University of Oklahoma graduate, Edward Yates (1920–2001), was hired to teach sculpture.
Following World War II, the department was squeezed into several surplus Quonset huts in an area on campus affectionately known as "Skunk Hollow." It found a permanent home when the James Edward Church Fine Arts (CFA) Building, designed by Richard Neutra (1892–1970), was opened in 1960. In 1987, a substantial addition to CFA was completed.
A steady line of instructors was added in the late 1950s and 60s. Calvin Gross arrived to teach art history and doubled as ceramics instructor. Robert Hartman, a demanding yet popular teacher, taught painting from 1958 to 1961 before leaving for a lengthy career at the University of California—Berkeley. In 1960, Jim McCormick, another Oklahoman from Tulsa, was appointed to offer instruction in printmaking and drawing. Donald Kerr, a graduate of Ohio State University, established the "flash lab," an experimental drawing program that heightened students' levels of perception. Abstract expressionist William Vaughn Howard replaced Hartman, and directed the department's gallery for a number of years. A versatile Charles Ross relocated from Nevada Southern University (today's UNLV) and, in addition to teaching, served as chair for several years. Howard Rosenberg, an irrepressible East Coast transplant, was responsible for art education, cinema history, and student advisement. In addition, Rosenberg was elected to two terms on the University Board of Regents. Robert Morrison, who developed a challenging sculpture program that included bronze casting, and Ed Martinez, a jack-of-all-trades who taught drawing, wallworks, printmaking, and extension courses, both arrived in 1968.
In the 1970s and 80s, Fred Reid and Chris Unterseher offered traditional pottery and ceramic-sculpture, respectively, in a state-of-the-art ceramics center. A comprehensive photography program was instituted by Peter Goin, who engaged in research that led to the publication of a number of books featuring his issue-oriented photographs. Multi-media artist Michael Sarich joined the faculty in 1989; his images were a forceful blend of religious icons, pop culture, and personal metaphors. Following Sarich's arrival, Joe DeLappe pioneered the digital media center and served as department chair when the new Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program was realized.
Art historian Sheila Ross succeeded Gross; she was a modernist who initially developed the instructional slide collection. Jane Davidson, whose specialty is medieval and Renaissance art, arrived in 1978, and, more recently, Joanna Frueh brought a feminist perspective to the art history program.
The inaugural exhibition in the Church Fine Arts Building in 1960 was titled "70 by 50". It consisted of modern paintings and sculpture from the collection of Reno businessman-rancher Wilbur May (1898–1982). In 1978, this space was renamed the Yolande and Craig Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery. Walter McNamara (1939–), who served as curator for over a quarter of a century, worked with meager funds and limited space to install major exhibits by artists of the stature of Wayne Thiebaud (1920–), William T. Wiley (1937–), Peter Voulkos (1924–2002), John Mason (1927–), and Edward Ruscha (1937–). Today, the Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery is dedicated to inquiry and experimentation by students, faculty, and guest artists as an educational-research component of the Department of Art under the direction of Marjorie Vecchio.
From the time of Craig Sheppard's arrival in 1947, the department offered a Bachelor of Arts degree. A Bachelor of Fine Arts was introduced in 1997 and an interdisciplinary Master of Fine Arts program commenced with two candidates in 2006. Tamara Scronce, a recent and innovative addition to the sculpture faculty, serves as director of the MFA program.
The Department of Art recently ended its long-standing association with the College of Arts and Science and moved to a new School of Fine Arts. In the process, the Black Rock Press, formerly a teaching and publication wing of the university's Getchell Library, was relocated to the Department of Art, as was former special collections librarian Bob Blesse, who will continue as Black Rock Press director.
The future of the Department of Art looks very positive. A major capital campaign is commencing; it will conclude with the construction of a key addition to the existing Church Fine Arts Building, resulting in the expansion of many of the department's services and programs.