SECCA opened in 1956 as a non-profit visual arts organization in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in response to a community and regional need for exhibition space devoted to work by area artists. By 1972, when industrialist James G. Hanes willed his 32-acre estate to the gallery, its scope included all 11 southeastern states. Renovation of Hanes' English Hunt-Style mansion, as well as the construction of an 8,896 square foot gallery addition and receiving area, was completed in 1976.

SECCA entered its second phase of growth in 1990 with the addition of the new 24,500 square foot addition. With the completion of this space, SECCA's vision was changed to a national focus on exhibiting the work of the country's major contemporary artists while preserving a commitment to southeastern artists. The 300-seat McChesney Scott Dunn Auditorium enables the center to expand the scope and quality of its programs, which offer the community access to contemporary music, drama, dance and film as well as lectures, conferences, and symposia on contemporary art issues. SECCA is dedicated to creative excellence in the visual arts and interpreting the diversity of American contemporary art.

In 1994, SECCA initiated a new project entitled Artist and the Community. Structured as a series of three-week to three-month-long residencies resulting in the creation of new work, participating artists focus on issues critical to this community. Working with other community-based institutions from schools to social service agencies, the program forges a link between artist and community members. Artists who have participated in the project thus far are: Donald Lipski, Tim Rollins, Fred Wilson, Hope Sandrow, Eleanor Antin, Willie Birch, Maya Lin, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Mr. Imagination and Lesley Dill.

SECCA continued the rich legacy of community-based projects, with an outgrowth of the Artist and the Community series in 2003 by launching the HOME House Project, a bold, multi-year initiative that addressed the future of affordable housing and examined the idea of community in the larger sense. The HOME House Project marked the first time that a museum of any kind has ventured into this territory as a unique opportunity to provide residents of low and moderate income housing with inspired living space historically reserved for the more affluent. Our overall aim was to establish a new national housing model promoting state-of-the-art design, energy efficiency, environmental consciousness, sustainability, and cost effectiveness. This project continues to thrive in many communities across the United States where the SECCA-originated exhibition traveled.

In 2003, SECCA's board commissioned a facilities study with the goal in mind to assess SECCA's physical plant needs. The study revealed the need for approximately $2.2 million for immediate repairs, including roofing, siding, and climate control. The analysis also forecasted an additional $8.9-10.6 million would be required over the next 10 years for renovations and repairs including: a landscape master plan and improvements, Hanes House asbestos abatement, improvements to gallery spaces including lighting, restroom expansions and ADA compliance, auditorium upgrade, and Children's Creative Center renovation including handicap access. A Capital Campaign was launched in an effort to raise the necessary funds to undertake these renovations and improvements, but it was not successful in reaching its goal. Confronted by insufficient resources and the critical need to repair the decaying physical plant, the Board undertook the development of a Long Range Plan covering the years 2007-2012 including a comprehensive study of the remedies available to SECCA. Among the options discussed were demolishing dehabilitated aspects of the facility, developing unimproved SECCA property, and moving the operations to downtown Winston-Salem. In the final analysis, the Board concluded that a transfer of operations to the State of North Carolina would allow SECCA the best opportunity to continue its mission: to bring contemporary art and community together. Thus, in 2007 the Board of Directors of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art proposed, in conjunction with the James G. Hanes Foundation, to pursue the transfer of the building and operations of SECCA along with a portion of the grounds, to the State of North Carolina. The NC Department of Cultural Resources accepted this transfer, and determined that SECCA would be an independent entity (with its own Advisory Board) and operate as an affiliate of the North Carolina Museum of Art.

The State of North Carolina formally took over the operations of SECCA on December 13, 2007. SECCA has retained its 501c3 status for the purposes of conducting fundraising for exhibitions and programs. Among the top priorities of the SECCA Advisory Board are to participate with the staff in reshaping SECCA's mission, conducting a facilities study, and developing a 5-year strategic plan. The Advisory Board also serves as a surrogate for SECCA's program staff, contributing feedback on the strength and effectiveness of the organization's operation, future program, and past results.