The Niland Collection is named in honour of its founder, Nora Niland, the former county librarian in Sligo. A graduate of English and Irish literature, she came to the town from her native Galway in 1945. In the late 1950s, she was involved in the setting up of the W.B. Yeats International Summer School in Sligo. She recognised the central role of Sligo to the work of both W.B. Yeats, and his brother Jack. Through her efforts Sligo Corporation acquired significant holdings of material relating to the Yeats family.
The Niland Collection of Jack Yeats paintings originated in 1954 when the artist presented the painting Leaving the Far Point to Sligo Corporation. His accompanying letter to the Mayor of Sligo proclaimed: "from the beginning of my painting life every painting which I have made has somewhere in it a thought of Sligo."
In 1962 Nora Niland managed to raise £3000 by public subscription to purchase three of Yeats's most renowned works, The Funeral of Harry Boland, Communicating with Prisoners and An Island Funeral. These key works belonged to the Capuchin Annual and had been brought to public attention in the pages of the popular journal through the writings of Thomas MacGreevy. MacGreevy, a long time friend of Yeats, and former director of the National Gallery of Ireland, lent and later presented, one of his own Yeats paintings, Singing 'The Minstrel Boy' to the Niland Collection. These core works were added to during the course of the 1960s largely through donations from, amongst others, the Abbey producer, Ria Mooney, the Irish-American bibliophile, James A. Healy and the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland.
The Jack B. Yeats paintings were housed together with other Yeats family material and artworks in a special room in Sligo County Library. In 1973 the Yeats paintings were put on display in a gallery on the first floor of the former Congregational Church in Sligo where they became a major cultural tourist attraction to visitors to the town. In 2001 the Model Arts and Niland Gallery opened in the refurbished Model school building. The Niland Collection which now included works by other modern Irish artists formed the nucleus of the gallery's impressive collection of 20th century Irish art. Its holdings of Jack Yeats paintings make it one of the most significant public collections of his art. It is a fitting legacy to the vision of Nora Niland and Sligo Corporation.