St. Pete's newest arts gem: James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art

There are 12 museums of Western art in the country says Tom James, chairman emeritus of Raymond James Financial, and he’s visited most of them. Now James and his wife Mary are unveiling their own museum showcasing the American West and Native American Indian culture.

The new $75 million privately funded James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art is located at 150 Central Avenue, in the heart of St. Petersburg’s waterfront arts district. The museum launched a soft opening earlier this month, to be followed by an official grand opening the weekend of April 28-29.

James started collecting over 50 years ago when he was in college at Harvard, and later, after he and Mary married. They now have a 3,000-piece private collection of paintings and sculpture featuring wildlife, western landscapes, Native American Indians and cowboys. Mary has an equally a stunning collection of Native American jewelry, from necklaces and bracelets to the bolos that James says he favors instead of ties.

Selecting which art to bring

Only 400 pieces of art are featured at the new museum, the rest remains on display at the Raymond James Financial campus at St. Petersburg’s Carillon Office Park, where the company headquarters now totals about 1.2 million square feet of building space.

“My employees first question was you’re not going to take all of the art to the new museum are you,” says James. “For years, they’ve been living with the art collection day in and day out.”

To assist him in selecting which pieces to bring to the museum, James turned to Art Curator Emily Kapes. Over two years, she and a team worked on the process, which included not only selecting which art to display, but also in which of the eight galleries that piece would be placed.  

To assist them, they used an architectural model built by architecture students at the University of South Florida. “It was an amazing feat,” says Kapes. “I worked with tiny facsimiles of the art at a scale of ½ inch to 1-foot.”

James also didn't want the traditional white walls as backdrop for the art. Instead he says, he wanted to evoke the rich color scheme of the Southwest. “We had paint mock-ups brought to the galleries, along with some of the paintings to make sure it was right,” says Mary.

The galleries are color-coded to reflect their theme, which ranges from large landscape paintings in the cream-colored Vistas Gallery to rust-colored Early west Gallery and the gold Native Artists Gallery with art created by 20th and 21st century American Indian artists.

Iconic artists such as Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, as well as contemporary living artists Irving Couse, John Sharp, Allan Houser, Bob Kuhn, Martin Grelle, John Coleman, and Bonnie Marris are represented in the collection.

Landmark building design

A joint venture among Harvard Jolly Architecture, Yann Weymouth and Wannemacher Jensen Architects created the vision for the new James Museum.  The building itself is a work of art, similar to the Dali Museum for which Yann Weymouth was the Architect.

The prominent feature in the museum’s spacious, 33,000-sqaure-foot-entry hall is a two-story-story waterfall -- 18-foot high by 18-foot wide with a sloped granite face. The sound of the water falling, combined with an overhead soundtrack of a Native American flute greet visitors.

The museum walls suggest the sandstone mesas of the Southwest and are faced with teak sandstone panels from Jaipur, India. Each panel was hand-selected so the striations and color pattern would match to make everything as realistic as possible. “They went through an unbelievable process to match the panels,” says James.

Rather than building the museum from the ground-floor up as a freestanding structure, the team worked with the city to redesign an existing eight-story parking garage. The first two levels of the building are dedicated to the new museum; the remaining levels still function as a parking garage.

Designing the new museum “was a project from hell in how to take a parking garage and make it look like a real museum that represents the landscape and vistas of the west,” says James. “I’m proud of the job that Yann and his team accomplished.”

James says his vision for the museum was not only to provide a gallery for his collection, but to add to St. Petersburg’s reputation as an arts destination.

?“Our hope is that our new museum will be another great attraction that reinforces all of the other museums in town,” says James.  “We have a trail wind we’re following with what Hank Hine has done for the Dali Museum. I think I can say with confidence that there is more art per capita here in St. Pete than anywhere else in the U.S.”

The idea of giving back to the St. Petersburg community also inspired him, says James.

“I was born and raised in South St. Petersburg and have been blessed by being here,” says James. “This is the community that helped spawn my business. I was able to build a business here that was centric to New York City at the time. To our advantage, we had a lot of wealthy retirees coming here and they needed assistance with estate planning and Florida laws. That’s what we did and we became very successful at it.”

In addition to galleries, the museum includes a theatre, gift shop, café and special event space for up to 750 people. Planned programming includes artist talks, demonstrations, educational programs, docent tours and children’s activities.

To learn more, visit the James Museum website.

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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.