Joan Adams was born in Eugene, Oregon, and is one of three daughters of the Rev. John Maxwell Adams, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife, the former Eleanor Jane Hall. She attended Media Friends School, an integrated Quaker school in Media, Pennsylvania, a public school in Columbus, Ohio, and later St. Paul Academy and Summit School in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1952, she graduated from Macalester College, where her father served as a chaplain. Following her graduation from college, she worked at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts before returning to Minnesota, where she worked at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
She married Walter Mondale on December 27, 1955, several months after a blind date. The date was set up by her brother-in-law, future Judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals William Canby, a law school classmate of Walter Mondale's at the University of Minnesota. The couple has three children: a daughter, Eleanor, and two sons, Theodore and William.
During her husband's term as Vice President from 1977 to 1981, Joan Mondale served as Honorary Chairperson of the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. In 1972, she wrote "Politics in Art", a book for young adults. During her time at Number One Observatory Circle, which served as the official Vice Presidential residence, Mondale made the house a showcase of American art, opening it up for tours and decorating it with works by Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Hopper, Louise Nevelson, Ansel Adams, and others. An advocate for the arts, she also testified before Congress in an attempt to revise the estate tax to benefit artists and their families.
Following her husband's defeat in the 1980 Vice Presidential race, the Mondales returned to Minnesota, where they lived until her husband's 1993 appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Japan. While living in Japan from 1993 to 1996, she studied Japanese art.
At its 1977 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded Mondale its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.
In 1980, a tulip created by Dutch breeder J. F. van der Berg was named in her honor.