The National Museum of African Art was the first institution dedicated to African art in the United States, followed by the New York-based Center for African Art (now The African Center) in 1984. The National Museum's collection is larger. As of 2008, it consisted of 9,000 objects and 300,000 photographs. The objects range from 15th-century sculptures and masks to multi-media contemporary art, and the photographs include major contributions from photojournalists Eliot Elisofon and Constance Stuart Larrabee. Elisofon covered major 20th century events for Life, and Larrabee covered World War II and South African life. As of 2004, the museum had 400 contemporary artworks. The museum collects items for both their traditional uses and aesthetic values, and receives an average of 67 gifts annually. The breadth of its collections and special exhibitions made the museum "a solid force in the international art world" and the main venue for contemporary African art in the United States, according to The Washington Post.
As the museum moved to the National Mall in the mid 1980s, its permanent collection consisted of more than 6,000 art objects (e.g., sculpture, artifacts, textiles) and the large Elisofon photography collection. This original collection focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, with better representation of the Guinea coast and Western Sudan than the Central African region. The collection is idiosyncratic, reflecting the relative lack of colonial era African art acquisitions in American donor collections. Some early highlights of the museum's collection include an Edo–Portuguese ivory spoon and an Akan gold pendant bequeathed by the Robert Woods Bliss estate. The museum's first acquisitions budget came with joining the Smithsonian.
Within a decade, the collection had expanded to 7,000 traditional and modern objects from across all of Africa. Under Walker's tenure, the museum expanded its contemporary art collection, opening a permanent gallery in 1997. That year, photographer Constance Stuart Larrabee gave the museum 3,000 photographs from South Africa. In 2005, the museum received the Walt Disney-Tishman Collection of 525 works spanning most major African art styles and 75 cultures. The acquisition was a validation of the museum's status, given the other institutions who vied for the collection. The museum's library also grew upon joining the Smithsonian, from 3,000 to 30,000 volumes in visual arts, anthropology, cooking, history, religion, and travel, especially works published in Africa. It now contains 50,000 volumes.