The fine arts were an integral component of the Foundation's mission from the onset. One of the first exchange programs was the Summer Course in Polish Art, organized for American art students at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts in 1937 and 1938. During World War II the Foundation sent, with the cooperation of the American Relief for Poland Committee, art supplies and assistance to Polish artists stranded in various parts of the world. With the acquisition of the Kosciuszko Foundation House in 1945 came an opportunity to lodge a permanent collection of Polish masterworks in the United States. The Foundation House was formally opened with a commemoration of the bicentennial of Tadeusz Kosciuszko's birth on October 17, 1946. The first exhibition was organized in March of 1947. It featured twenty-one portraits by the Polish artist Boleslaw Jan Czedekowski. Czedekowski, who was aided by the Foundation following his arrival in the United States during World War II, was subsequently commissioned to paint a portrait of Tadeusz Kosciuszko as an American military hero, dressed in the uniform of a brigadier general of the Continental army of the American War of Independence. This portrait, which hangs over the mantle in the Main Gallery, was donated by the artist to the Foundation and was the first acquisition of the permanent collection. [include picture of Czedekowski painting here].
Most of the major works in the present collection were acquired during the early 1950s. A concerted effort was initiated by Prof. Stephen P. Mizwa, the director and subsequently the president of the Foundation, to gather together Polish masterworks for public view in this country. Poland at this time was virtually cut off from the West; cultural and intellectual exchange had ceased with the onset of the cold war. This isolation had a profound effect on Polish intellectual life in the United States. Mizwa began to receive appeals urging the Foundation to involve itself in the preservation of Polish culture. Embracing these appeals in 1951 he wrote:
The Foundation, in view of the present, we hope temporary, situation in Poland, has shifted its emphasis to cultural activities here and is turning into an American Center for Polish Culture. One of our aims in the new program is trying to collect, preserve, and make available to the public Polish cultural treasures of the past – especially paintings by Polish masters, as may be available.
Correspondence ensued between Mizwa and collectors in Paris, Vienna, London, Nova Scotia, Berlin, and New York. He followed the international art auctions and began to give thought to the financing the collection he envisioned.
In many cases, works were crated and sent to the Foundation on loan and then exhibited in the gallery in the expectation that a patron would be found to purchase the piece for the collection. In other instances, Mizwa wrote directly to individuals who had expressed interest in donating a sum of money to the Foundation, suggesting that they instead purchase a particular painting, perhaps donating the piece in the memory of a family member. Gala presentation ceremonies were held and many minor donations were made during this period of various types of artworks. The call to complete the collection was met with passionate resolve by friends of the Foundation and by 1953 most of the works that constitute the Gallery of Polish Masters had been assembled. If there was an ideological component to the curatorial decisions Mizwa made during the postwar years, it is important to note that the major works acquired were by artists of international repute, such as Jan Matejko, Jozef Brandt, Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski, and Jacek Malczewski. There was an easy affinity between the contemporary concern with preserving Polish cultural treasures and the expressive intent of many of the works collected. Mizwa's decision to center the collection on works form the nineteenth century was not incidental. It was with the coming of romanticism that paintings in Poland began to answer to patriotic as well as aesthetic concerns and this is just what Mizwa wanted.
Once educational exchange with Poland was re-initiated in the 1960s, the collection was further enhanced by donations of artworks from Polish artists who were awarded exchange fellowships. Most of these individuals were located in New York City; a component of their award was an exhibition at the KF House. This significant aspect brought the only venue for Polish post war abstraction to the United States, and the Foundation House was the hub of this important activity. Besides the work of exchange scholars, other exhibitions were organized that focused on poster and graphic design, photography, textile arts, glass, and sculpture.
Besides the imposing Gallery of Polish Masters, artwork from the collection is hung throughout the Foundation's public rooms and office spaces. Other areas of strength include art and artifacts of the interwar period, eighteenth and nineteenth century graphic works, an impressive collection of period photographs chronicling the experience of Poles in America, and sculpture. In the 1970s the Foundation's Rotunda was fitted with new lighting to facilitate exhibitions. During this period a series of traveling exhibitions, particularly of documentary photographs, was conceived and circulated by the Foundation. In 1975 and 1976 the physical condition of the collection was evaluated by Prof. Jozef Flik, chief conservator of painting at the Nicholas Copernicus University in Torun, who undertook the conservation of over forty paintings. Selected works from the collection have traveled; in 1984 to the Hall of Honor, Hotel de Ville in Montreal; in 1992 to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York; and to the American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts; and finally in 1994 to the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In 1993 the Kosciuszko Foundation underwent a comprehensive renovation under the direction of architect William Hess. The entire collection was put into storage at that time and, once returned, was appraised and underwent an accessioning process. This procedure differentiated the items by discipline, with each receiving an identification (or accession) number. A file was created for each accessioned piece that contains not only its physical statistics, but any letters, catalogs, or printed matter pertinent to the work or donor. An archival storage file houses the Foundation's large format works on paper collections; these include posters, original drawings, maps, prints, and photographs. In 1995 the Foundation published a catalog, Polish Masters from the Kosciuszko Foundation Collection. Its appendix contains a partial listing of works from the entire collection and is available for sale. Since 1993, the Foundation has retained a Curator-in-Residence on a consultancy basis whose responsibility it is to maintain the collection and facilitate access for scholarly research.