The passageway between the Retreat and the Atrium served as an exhibition space long before the Palmer Gallery existed, but because the space lacked definition and identity, the passing crowds rarely took a moment to contemplate a show. Then, in 1996, the Office of Campus Activities submitted a proposal to transform the space into a glass-enclosed gallery, with a formal entrance and a security system. The immediate result was a marked increase in exhibition proposals and a steady stream of visitors to the gallery.
In 2000, the Palmer family named and endowed the gallery in memory of their son, James, who had passed away earlier that year. A member of the class of 1990, James was an art history major and a resident of Cushing House. He remained closely tied to Vassar and classmates after graduation, serving as class president from 1995 through 1998, working as a fundraising volunteer for his 10th reunion, and eventually becoming a member of the professional staff in the Development Office.