ST. PETERSBURG — As a child, businessman and philanthropist Tom James loved cowboy movies, an affinity that would later play out in a vast collection of Western art amassed over the years with his wife, Mary.
In a few months, the couple will open the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in the heart of St. Petersburg's downtown, blocks from the Museum of Fine Arts, the Dalí Museum and the planned Museum of American Arts and Crafts Movement.
Tom James, 75, is chairman emeritus of Raymond James Financial, the firm whose name sits atop a football stadium. The James Museum will display about 300 to 400 pieces of a collection assembled over years of frequent trips to America's West, excursions initially inspired by Mary James' fondness for skiing. The 80,000-square-foot museum at 100 Central Ave. will also be home to Mary James' extensive Native American jewelry collection.
Tom and Mary James, 74, recently spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about their collection, its genesis and their hopes for its future.
Your husband began collecting art while he was a student. When and why did you become an art collector and how are your interests different or complementary to your husband's?
We collected together. Tom was at Harvard and I was at Wellesley and that was kind of a fun date. We started collecting New England scenes. ... I don't know why we got the Western bug at the same time. I didn't know that it would turn out like this. I got him to take up skiing. He said he was going to town and buying some art and that's what got him started. I didn't see that it would be a collection like this. We grew up on cowboy movies, the romance of the West and we loved all the ski towns.
Tell us about the jewelry collection.
There are all these beautiful, contemporary Southwestern jewelry that are really quite lovely. I think women will really enjoy them. Men, too. There are a lot of belt buckles and bolos. It's quite a broad selection and we had some of them on display at the Museum of Fine Arts a couple of years ago. That was quite a good little preview of what people would be seeing.
Whose idea was it to open a museum? Why was it a good idea? Have you had trepidations about this project?
My answer to that question is definitely Tom. We didn't collect the art for an actual museum. People accused him of buying a new building every time he ran out of space. He didn't start making noise about a museum until about four or five years ago … after the new Dali. He got with the program and started looking around seriously and started looking at locations and we ended up buying the site we did. Now it's an even bigger project. It's not just a museum. It's going to have to be organized. It is quite out of my areas of expertise, but not Tom's. I'm excited for the city. Every time we go out everybody is asking, when is it going to be open.
What is it about the American West that captured your interest as a collector?
When we began traveling to the west to ski and then to enjoy the mountains for part of the summer, it was natural for us to visit art galleries and museums. I was always fascinated by art. In my youth, my first movies were about cowboys and Indians and we've always loved animals so it was a natural transition to add western art and wildlife to our art purchases. We have been pleased to enjoy both Florida, with its water and sun, as well as the mountains with their very different attributes.
What was your favorite western movie?
My first date was a western movie when I was 12. We met downtown (Sandusky, Ohio) and we went to a movie. I liked all of the old, traditional ones. All the early cowboy actors. I loved Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and Gene Autry. I always loved music. I loved the singing cowboy movies and I loved John Wayne and all the modern stars, too. I also go to all the new Western movies that come out. I always loved cowboys and Indians when I was little. It was a lot of fun. I think part of our job is to try to share some of the fun we had in those times too. Education is very important to me. We will even show some of those old movies.
Why did you choose downtown St. Petersburg for your new museum? What other locations did you consider?
Locating the James Museum in our hometown of St. Petersburg was our prime objective. Although we reviewed numerous locations in St. Pete and were offered several outside the area, we never ever even seriously considered another city. We want to complement the Dalí, the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, the Chihuly and the planned arts and crafts museum to establish St. Petersburg as an arts destination, as well as enhance the reputation of Tampa Bay, with the inclusion of the Tampa Art Museum and other arts activities, as an arts region. Furthermore, we already benefit from Tampa Bay's natural beauty, as well as a trio of professional sports teams, which have made us one of the top tourist attractions in the United States.
Is this museum sort of a retirement gift to yourself, to St. Petersburg?
The interesting thing is, when we moved (Raymond James headquarters) to Carillon, I had this property annexed to the city of St. Petersburg, even though it cost us more in taxes, because I felt allegiance to the city. I feel the same way that this collection belongs in St. Petersburg. ... This is our home, what better thing to do for our community than to add value to it through education, entertainment and culture?
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes