Arthur A. Houghton was born into a prominent New England and Upstate New York family, which had founded Corning Glass Works in 1851. After graduating from Harvard University in 1929, he joined the family business. In 1933 Houghton became president of the company's subsidiary division, Steuben Glass, and transformed it into a firm of international repute, known for its modern design and incorporation of Art Deco and modernist themes into glass. A member of more than one hundred organizations dedicated to art, culture, and education, Houghton was on the board of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Society, where he acted as chairman (1958–1963) and was involved in the creation of the Lincoln Center (1963). Moreover, Houghton was an influential figure at the Met. He served as a trustee on the Museum's board (1952–1974). During his tenure as board president (1964–1969), the Museum's administration and curatorial system was modernized. From 1969 to 1972, Houghton acted as chairman and was responsible for the Museum's centennial celebration in 1970.
Arthur A. Houghton Jr. was also a renowned collector of rare books and letters. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he developed an interest in English literature, and after his graduation in 1929 he started his collecting career. His interest prompted him to become a curator of rare books, first at the Federal Library, and later at the Library of Congress in Washington. Among his collection highlights are his Keats collection of English Romantic poetry, of which he owned one of the largest in the world, and the famous Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, Safavid ruler of Iran (r. 1524–76) and a great patron of art. This book is arguably the most luxuriously illustrated copy of Firdausi's epic ever produced in the history of Persian painting. Houghton acquired it from Baron Edmund de Rothschild in 1959. In 1970 he donated to the Museum seventy-six folios of what today can be considered "the Picassos" of this class of Islamic painting.