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.

Western Art Collector - - CONTENTS - By Michael Claw­son

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.

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