The Mayo School of Industrial Art was set up in 1875 to perpetuate the memory of Lord Mayo, the British Viceroy of India, who was assassinated in 1872, was among the pioneer colonial art schools established in British India, besides the art schools in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.
Lockwood Kipling (father of authorRudyard Kipling), a teacher of painting and sculpture working then in a J.J. School of Art in Bombay, was appointed its first Principal. Additionally, he was held the charge as the Curator of the Lahore Museum. Lockwood Kipling was followed by designer- architect, Bhai Ram Singh, historian Percy Brown, European Miniaturist Lionel Heath, and Indian modern artist S. N. Gupta. Mian Mohammed Hussain and G N Malik were the principals of the School following the exit of Hindu and Sikh teachers after partition of India in 1947.
In 1958, the Mayo School was upgraded to National College of Arts (NCA) where Professor Mark Sponenburgh, an ex-JJ School sculptor, continued as the Principal and introduced major changes in the curriculum for necessary upgrading of the art disciplines. Ali succeeded Sponenburgh as Principal in 1961, where he served till 1969.
In 1963, the government recognized the College as the premier art institution in Pakistan. It was consequently taken away from the Department of Industries and placed under the Education Department with its own Board of Governors. The new policy in 1972 recognized the achievements of the College and planned its development into a centre of excellence in the visual arts. A unique measure of autonomy, under the Federal Government, was ensured from this point on. In 1985 the College was granted a degree awarding status. This also empowered the NCA to institute graduate programmes in the field of visual arts. M.A. in Visual Arts and an M. Phil leading to Ph.D. in Communication and Cultural Studies were initiated in 1999. In the same year, a Research and Publication Centre was established that has produced a number of books on history, art and various other disciplines within the social sciences and humanities. A project for the restoration and conservation of the archival records of Mayo School of Arts was also initiated, which has broadened in scope to include the archives of the NCA.
In 1999 the College started a two years Master’s degree program in Interior Design. Acknowledging the importance of information technology in the creative fields, the NCA initiated a graduate programme in Multimedia Arts in September 2001. The College has established departments of Musicology, Film & Television in the first decade of the 21st century. It has also established the Centre for Conservation and Cultural Heritage Management.
In June 2011, the NCA was granted a University status by the Prime Minister of Pakistan.