The museum was founded in 1958 on the basis of the State Museum of the Tatarstan Soviet Socialist Republic, which brought together works from the collection of the Kazan local historian and archaeologist of the second half of the 19th century Andrey Likhachev: pictures by Vasily Tropinin, Ivan Aivazovsky, Vasily Perov and Ivan Shishkin. Later, works by Ilya Repin, Alexandre Benois and Boris Kustodiev were added to the collection.
Today, the SMFA collection comprises over 25,000 works, including paintings, graphic works, sculptures and decorative and applied art pieces. Specifically, these include European engravings, Old Russian icon-painting of the 16th century, Russian Avant Garde works from the beginning of the 20th century, and a rich collection of works by the artists of Tatarstan.
The museum moved to its building on Ulitsa Karla Marksa (Karla Marksa Street) in 1967. The building is worthy of attention in its own right as a historic site. At the beginning of the 20th century, the commander of the forces of the Kazan Military District, Alexander Sandetsky, lived here. Born in Vilna (now Vilnius), Sandetsky dedicated 40 years of his life to the army, serving in the Western Siberian Military District, the Caucasus and Transbaikalia. Having come to the Kazan province, he only left it briefly during World War I to command the forces of the Moscow Military District. He then returned to Kazan, where he remained right up until he was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The mansion, with its courtyard, annex, stables and park was built especially for his arrival in 1907 and was financed by the Russian Ministry of War. The house was decorated with Persian carpets, rifles and pistols, and adjutants scurried about the stairs and passageways carrying papers. Following the Revolution, a tuberculosis clinic was set up here. As a result, prior to the museum being moved to the building, in order to entirely remove any remaining mold and dust, the internal finishing of the walls was replaced, with much of the historic decorative plastering being lost in the process.
Since 2007, every year an international festival of improvised music is held in the courtyard, Jazz at the Sandetsky Mansion. The festival was founded by the museum's director, Rozalia Nurgaleyeva, and jazz singer Olga Skepner.