Down South: The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art
Western art set for stunning debut at the new James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In the very heart of St. Petersburg, Florida, within walking distance of marinas and splendid views out over Tampa Bay from nearby piers, and within driving distance to world-class beaches dotted with palm trees, you will soon find cowpunchers high up in mountain pastures, Pueblo Indians wrapped in colorful blankets, warriors from the Northern Plains riding into battle on horseback, mountain lions pawing through fresh snow and landscapes with sunsets in abstracted configurations of desert colors.
The best part about cowboys and other Western subjects is how adaptable they are within the fabric of the American experience, be it saguaro-strewn Arizona or beach cities like St. Petersburg. This will be obvious when the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art opens this spring in an 87,000-square-foot space in the downtown area. The museum draws from the collection of Tom and Mary James, whose
vast collection, estimated at more than 3,000 pieces, currently fills more than 1 million square feet of office space at the headquarters of money management firm Raymond James Financial, where Tom James serves as chairman emeritus. When the museum opens, possibly as early as April, more than 400 works of art, both paintings and bronzes, will be on view at the museum in addition to 100 pieces of Native jewelry from Mary’s collection.
Adding to the geographic intrigue of the Western collection, now housed in the Florida South, is that its origins can be found in skiing communities in the West. “My wife came to Florida from Michigan, and after 10 years of hard work she told me I had to take her skiing. I agreed. That was 40 or so years ago. Well, with all of those Western ski resort towns the most prevalent form of art was Western art. So the more I skied the more I developed a habit for collecting Western artists’ works,” Tom says. “It fit in for me because I had grown up on Western movies. My first date was to a cowboy movie when I was 12 years old. Today young kids don’t think about the journey west,
or how we moved the Native Americans to the corners of their natural lands, or America’s wildlife. To me the excitement of some of those old movies was reflected in the beauty of the artwork I was seeing.”
While the James’ were avid collectors of New England art and were patrons of the arts in St. Petersburg—they would host invitational exhibitions for Florida artists in parking lots for a number of years—tom James still remembers his first major Western purchase. It was likely the late 1970s, while they were on a skiing trip in Aspen, Colorado. “We were skiing in blizzard conditions, and after three days of that I said the heck with it and told Mary I was going into town with $15,000 to buy some art,” Tom says. “I went in one of the galleries and they had an Earl Biss painting that had just been brought in. It was so new that they wouldn’t let me take it home because the paint was still wet. Earl was walking around town and they told me to come back in two hours to talk to him. I really admired him, and I bought that painting and some others, and thought that was just the start. It was a great deal of fun, and I felt more comfortable with Western art. My eyes got better, too, as I looked at more artwork. Like then, and still today, I never buy for investment—i buy for the artists.”
Tom, who was once in a rock ’n’ roll band when he was younger, says he admired the artists and wanted to do everything he could to support the ones he liked. It’s that appreciation of what the artists are creating that drives much of the James collection. It has led Tom to Howard Terpning, Z.S. Liang, John Coleman, Dave Mcgary, Ed Mell, Robert Griffing and many others, even today as the collection grows further.
The idea for the museum didn’t start to solidify until after the completion of the new Salvador Dalí Museum in 2011. Tom remembers the exact date, 1/11/11, because he was chairman of the board of trustees at the time, and was hugely responsible for guiding the museum into its new space, which is now a worldwide architectural icon. (Today the Dalí museum and the James Museum are practically neighbors at four blocks away from each other.) The process of building a museum from the ground up was no longer foreign to him, so Tom jumped at a new opportunity with his own collection.
“From choosing the architect to choosing the builder to raising the money, I was there from start to finish, and going through the process really was a rush. You’re just always trying to make it to the finish line—it’s partially work, partially pain, partially hope and also some pride. You stand there thinking you know you’re going to get it done, it’s just a matter of when,” Tom says. “That experience gave me the confidence to do this, and even while the Dalí was happening, somewhere in the recesses of my mind I was thinking about doing it with a Western and wildlife museum.”
As the idea went from his head to paper, and then on to the massive renovation of his downtown space, Tom slowly started to assemble his team together, including Emily Kapes, who is the curator at Raymond James Financial, as the museum’s first curator of art; and Bernice Chu, who comes from the Museum of Contemporary of Art Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as the museum’s interim director.
“The James’ collection has happened as naturally and organically as possible. They never intended to have thousands of pieces of art; they were just passionate about the artists and they stayed with it. What they’ve amassed is an amazing collection,” Kapes says. “For Tom especially, it’s been a very personal passion for him. His goal was to support living artists. And he has a reputation for that. He wants to see the artists succeed, and he wants to see them stretch themselves and grow.”
Kapes adds that when the museum opens, guests will get to experience the West in the way that the James’ have, and with painters and sculptors they admire, including artists such as Martin Grelle, Joe Beeler, Logan Maxwell Hagege, Scott Tallman Powers, Tim Solliday, Mian Situ and a growing collection of historic works by Joseph Henry Sharp, Eanger Irving Couse, Maynard Dixon and others. “We hope people are coming into the museum excited to hear some amazing stories about the American West. We want people to think about different perspectives and cultures, because it is unusual for Florida to have a museum of the American West,” she says. “We want to engage people in a different way and really ask them about the next frontier or their next adventure, and also
think about the Native American perspective or Chinese-american perspective and to ask themselves what these people went through as they settled the West. We see the museum as a great educational opportunity.”
For Chu, who runs the day-to-day operations at the yet-unopened museum, she’s looking forward to the museum being a cultural hub in the heart of St. Petersburg and draws attention to significant space set aside for public events, whether they are art-oriented or not. “We have 6,000 square feet of event space, and we expect it to be very popular in downtown St. Petersburg. We’re one of only two venues with that kind of event space, and we’re thrilled to be able to bring people together in this location,” Chu says. “Tom and Mary aren’t doing this for tax purposes or any other reason. They are doing it because they are so grateful to the community. It is their gift and legacy to St. Petersburg.”
As of early January, the museum was still an active construction site with hard hats required, but work was progressing fast and all signs were pointing to a possible April opening. Although the galleries themselves aren’t ready, artwork has already been slated for the spaces, including Mell’s High Desert Clouds, Daniel Smith’s mountain lion scene High Plains Drifter, Dixon’s 1945 oil painting Navajo Mother, Couse’s 1922 interior scene Indian Examining a Blanket, and Liang’s The Mystic Beasts, which shows several warriors examining the bones of what is likely a mastodon. In addition to paintings and sculpture, there will be works by prominent Native American artists such as Paul Pletka, Allan Houser, Dan Naminga, Tony Abeyta and the work by Biss that started Tom’s original journey into the West.
“It’s a great hobby, Western art, I’ll tell you,” says Tom. “I never would’ve guessed I would have gotten into it. But here I am.”
Ed Mell, High Desert Clouds, oil on linen, 60 x 60”
Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936), Indian Examining a Blanket, oil on canvas, 46½ x 46½"
Charlie Dye (1906-1972), Dinner Music, oil on canvas, 24 x 36"
Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), Navajo Mother, oil on board, 16 x 20"
Z.S. Liang, The Mystic Beast, oil on canvas, 50 x 62”
Rendering of the new James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida. The museum will open this spring.
Paul Pletka, Red Talkers, acrylic on linen, 72 x 120"
Tom and Mary James in front of Earl Biss’ Winter Sunrise Circle of the Big Sky People, their first major Western art purchase.