Over the course of time the name, ownership, the contents of the collections and operating policy of the Latvian National Museum of Art (LNMA) have undergone many changes and transformations. The origins of several Riga museums are associated with the name of the doctor Nikolai Himsel. An art collection of sorts began to form in the Himsel Museum (established 1773) and in 1816 it was separated into its own cabinet. Among the artworks donated to the cabinet there are several paintings that are now in the keeping of the Latvian National Museum of Art.
In 1866 the Riga council acquired the paintings of collector Domenico de Robiani and these formed the basis for the Riga City Art Gallery. The gallery was opened to the public in 1869 in the Riga Realschule (now the Riga 1st State Grammar School at 8, Raiņa Boulevard). The Riga Society of Art Promotion or Kunstverein was founded in 1870. Both organizations shared a common aim, to popularise the visual arts, to hold exhibitions and to promote the development of art in the Baltic.
From 1879 until 1905, the City Gallery leased accommodation in a building owned by Ludwig Wilhelm Kerkoviuss (now the science library of the University of Latvia at 4 Kalpaka Boulevard). The question of constructing accommodation for the needs of the museum had been raised several times since the 1870s.
The main LNMA building was built between 1903 and 1905 for the needs of the Riga City Museum of Art and the Riga Society of Art Promotion. It is the first building in the Baltics specially built for the needs of a museum. The project author and first museum director was the German architect and art historian, Wilhelm Neumann (1849–1919). The collections consisted mainly of works by Western European artists from the City Art Gallery. Alongside the permanent display other exhibitions were organized too.
With Latvia's independence in 1918, the aims and tasks of the museum also changed and attention was turned to the heritage of national art and contemporary developments. The purposeful formation of a collection of Latvian visual art began in the 1920s and 30s when the museum director was the notable Latvian painter, Professor Vilhelms Purvītis (1872–1945).
From 1920 the State Museum of Art also occupied part of the Riga castle where the core consisted of the collection of national art but in parallel, a collection of foreign art was also formed. Both art museums were distinguished by their ownership – the city and the state. The twenty years of the independent first Republic were a very fruitful and important period in the life of the museum, interrupted in 1940 by the Soviet occupation.
In Latvia the Soviet regime's planned reorganization of museums also affected the Riga City Art Museum that went over to state ownership. The decision was made to reorganize the museum system. This envisaged the formation of one museum that would concentrate on the collections of Latvian art and a second museum focusing on foreign art. The reorganization begun in 1940 by the Soviet regime was completed immediately after the war when the collections of both museums were divided and systematized according to new principles. Although this division, whereby professional Latvian art went to the State Museum of Latvian and Russian Art (1989–2005 State Museum of Art, now Latvian National Museum of Art), and the foreign collections went to the State Museum of Western European Art (Museum of Foreign Art, now subsidiary of LNMA – Art Museum "Riga Bourse").
1963 saw the establishment of the Combined Directorate of Latvian SSR Art Museums and Exhibitions and both museums was incorporated as its structural units.
In the mid-1980s former warehouse at Torņa Street was taken over by the Directorate for the use of the Museum of Art. The Arsenāls Museum began functioning on January 1, 1989 with the transfer of the collection from the mid-20th century and onwards from Krišjāņa Valdemāra Street. At the same time on the basis of applied art collections of the Directorate and the State Museum of Art was established the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design which opened its doors to visitors on July 6, 1989. In 1989 also the Combined Directorate of Latvian SSR Art Museums and Exhibitions was renamed the Association of Latvian Art Museums.
In 2000 the Ministry of Culture abolished the Association of Latvian Art Museums and reorganized the structure of the member museums. It was decided to give independent legal status to individual museums – the Museum of Foreign Art and the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. At the same time the Arsenāls Museum of Art was abolished being united with the State Museum of Art. On the basis of these two museums has been organized one united museum of national importance which since September 2005 has a new name – the Latvian National Museum of Art.
In late 2006 Latvian National Museum of Art received bequest of an art historian Tatjana Suta and on October 14, 2008 on its bases opened the Museum of Romans Suta and Aleksandra Beļcova which is situated in former apartment of both artists on Elizabetes Street.
As of January 1, 2010, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design and the Museum of Foreign Art (now Art Museum "Riga Bourse") are also subsidiaries of the Latvian National Museum of Art.