In 1928, on the occasion of the celebrations of the semi-centennial anniversary of the Liberation of Sofia and the Millennium of the Golden Age of the Bulgarian literacy and culture, the then Mayor of the city General Vladimir Vazov issued a decree for setting up a special commission which would identify the methods and means for establishment of Sofia Municipal Museum. The new museum had three departments – Museum, Library and Archive, and its main purpose was to “collect, safeguard and study those items from Sofia’s material culture that are or will be of importance to Sofia’s culture”. Thus, the collection of material evidence for Sofia’s history, culture and art was initiated – books, documents, photographs, maps, designs, archaeological finds, household items, sculptures, paintings, graphics. The establishment of a “picture gallery” is an important part of the museum operation.
The museum was housed in different buildings from 1929 to 1941, when a specially constructed building was opened for the Sofia city library and museum at 3, Banski Sq (destroyed during the bombings). Here for the first time was exhibited the Sofia picture collection. In 1942, the “Sofia in books and pictures” prize was established by the management of Sofia Municipality for stimulating writers and artists to create works which “reflect the visible and spiritual image of Sofia”. A purposeful collecting of works by Bulgarian artists recreating the history and the present of the capital city started. This thematic collection numbers more than 350 works.
In the first several years following World War II the museum went through different stages of development and changes. In 1948, part of its art collection was transferred to the newly established National Art Gallery, in order to mark the beginning of its art collection. In April 1952, the library and the archive were separated from the city museum and in October of the same year, with decision of Sofia Municipality, the Museum of History in Sofia and the city gallery were pronounced individual institutions. Sofia Art Gallery again had no exhibition space of its own and exposed its collection from the end of 1950s to the middle of 1960s in a hall located at 11, Levski St, and after 1964, when this hall was demolished, the works from the collections were exhibited in different towns and cities in the country.
The gallery was granted its own space in the building at 1, General Gurko St only 21 years later – in 1973. It opened in 1977. During this period, the necessary architectural reorganisation for exhibition halls and depositories was implemented. The first exhibition of the museum was also prepared. The exhibition in 1977 included some of the most representative for the history of the Bulgarian works of art from 1920s to 1980s. For several years, this exhibition was only renewed and supplemented. The conversion of the picture collection into a considerable one took a long time. In the middle of the 1970s it already numbered 2,607 works, distributed in three departments – painting, graphics and sculpture. Even today, these works comprise the main pillar of the museum.
Over the years, Sofia Art Gallery has established itself as an important cultural space for the capital city. In 2006 it started its branch – the Vaska Emanouilova Gallery, which holds a collection of 89 sculptures, 38 drawings and 48 watercolours of the famous Bulgarian sculptress, part of which are displayed in a permanent exhibition.
Today, the museum has four departments: painting, sculpture, graphics, contemporary art and photography, and the collection consists of more than 8,000 works of Bulgarian artists from the end of 19 century to date. Part of its sculptures are arranged in the open in the City Garden.