After decades of collecting Western and wildlife art, Tom and Mary James opened the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art
By Chadd Scott
It’s every collector’s fantasy. An unlimited budget for unrestrained art purchases.
The word “browsing” doesn’t apply to you. When you enter a gallery, you’re shopping.
That fantasy was a reality for Tom and Mary James. The result, after decades of collecting Western and wildlife art which began in the mid-1980s, is the breathtaking James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Don’t let the location fool you. While palm trees, humidity and sailboats welcome visitors outside, inside, the James’ art collection transports guests out where the buffalo roam – or used to.
What is a Western art museum doing in Florida?
Tom James was CEO and Chairman of the Board at St. Petersburg-based financial services company Raymond James for more than 40 years. While the couple began collecting local art from fairs in the 60s, as their travels increasingly took them to the West for skiing trips, their collection evolved to focus on Western and wildlife subjects.
As any collector can attest, once bitten by the bug, there’s no turning back. The James’ were bitten.
Proud of the exceptional work they’d amassed and wanting to give back to the city–albeit in an off-kilter fashion–a museum was decided upon which opened in April of 2018.
There are more than 3,000 works of art in the James collection, most of which remains on display at Raymond James Financial Home Office. Almost 500 paintings, sculptures and other works are displayed in The James Museum’s 30,000-square-feet of gallery space. Each of the eight themed galleries highlight subjects ranging from Native peoples to cowboy culture to wildlife.
Don’t let those figures or the James’ wealth mislead you into thinking they collected willy-nilly. The couple focused their efforts on living artists, so while the museum does have examples from Russell, Remington, Dixon and the Taos Founders to provide historical bedrock and context for Western art, the vast majority of the collection is contemporary.
In many cases, they met the artists, as they did Earl Biss in 1985. The James’ purchased their first Indigenous and Western work from Biss (Apsáalooke/Crow) in 1985 on a trip to Colorado. Currently, more than 25% of the art and jewelry on display at the museum are created by Native artists.
Biss’ Winter Sunrise Circle of the Big Sky People, the painting which started it all, remains a highlight of the museum. There are no shortage of highlights.
Large, emotional paintings by Fritz Scholder and Paul Pletka. A dazzling array of jewelry fantastically displayed. Monumental sculptural pieces. Not to mention the building itself, lined in sandstone, mimicking a western canyon in St. Petersburg’s wonderfully artsy and walkable downtown.
Each piece on view was a choice made by the James.’ And the James did have to make choices. While extremely wealthy, they weren’t oligarchs. The collection’s focus is contemporary because the prices were more reasonable. The James’ didn’t load up on six and seven-figure Thomas Moran paintings at auction. They were in the galleries, meeting the artists, wearing out shoe leather.
Would you have made the same choices they did given the opportunity?
It’s more than a strictly hypothetical question for a true devote of Western art. With this work having been collected so recently, you are sure to have run across many of the artists on display at the James on your own travels. You’ll see Shonto Begay and Billy Schenk and Tony Abeyta and Logan Maxwell Hagege and Ed Mell and Terri Kelly Moyers.
How do the examples purchased by the James’ stack up to those you’ve see; those, but for resources, would have been added to your collection?
T.C. Cannon died in 1978, just before the James started buying. He’s missed. Jaune Quick-to-See Smith is missed. Kevin Red Star is missed.
Nitpicking is easy. En masse, it’s a fabulous 30 year’s work of investing in Western art. The James continue collecting, although not at the rate they used to.
The James Museum offers a provocative mental exercise of what your collection would look like if there were no, “ones that got away,” if there was no, “but, it costs too much.” If you had the means to purchase every piece of Western art which deeply moved you over the tenure of your collecting life, be that five years or 50, what would your “museum” look like?
What would take pride of place in your museum as another great Biss masterpiece, Magic Thunder in the Northern Sky, does here? What ally ways would you have pursued like the James did with wildlife art? Which artists would you have championed? Would you have added more Native material – pottery, basketry, rugs, beadwork? What about Western material like spurs and saddles?
Go down your own memory lane.
Everyone reading this surely has 20 pieces off the top of their head–25, 50–which continue resonating with you years after you first saw and said “goodbye” to. If you had been able to acquire all of those pieces, how would they show together? What gaps would there be in your collection?
How would your museum stack up to the James’?
The best way to find out is by heading to St. Petersburg and seeing for yourself.