The Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaíon began contributing towards the purchase of works of art in the mid-1950s, with the establishment of the Joint Purchase Scheme. This Scheme assisted hotels and then local authorities to purchase art for public display.
In the early 1960s, the Council decided to start a permanent collection. An early ambition of the Council was to build a body of work that would form the basis of a tour of Irish art outside Ireland. This tour eventually took place in 1969-71 to Scandinavia, Germany, England and Scotland.
Even though the budget was relatively small, the effect of purchasing art was quickly felt. Members of the buying committee were invited to visit exhibitions before they officially opened. If the Council decided to buy, a small card would be placed beside the work that read "Purchased by An Chomhairle Ealaíon / The Arts Council". This had a great impact and encouraged many private buyers who might have been unsure about purchasing a painting or sculpture.
During the 60s and into the early 70s a series of tours of work from the Collection took place around Ireland. These tours were usually called "Paintings from the Arts Council Collection" or "Work from the Arts Council Collection". Until the early 1980s there was no other national collection of contemporary art in the Republic of Ireland.
The Arts Council continues to collect today, with the collection now comprising of 1,086 works in many different mediums such as film, installation, sculpture, photography and painting. The majority of artworks are out on loan to public institutions, such as local authorities, hospitals and schools.