Meet the new director of St. Petersburg’s The James Museum

Here’s when the new director takes over the downtown museum.
Robin Nicholson is the new executive director of The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. He starts on June 1, 2023.
Robin Nicholson is the new executive director of The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. He starts on June 1, 2023. [ Courtesy of The James Museum ]
Published May 31

The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art has a new executive director: Cambridge art historian Robin Nicholson. He starts on June 1.

Nicholson was selected to helm the museum after former director Laura Hine resigned to focus on education advancement full time. She announced her resignation in November but stayed on through the spring.

A native of Edinburgh, Scotland, Nicholson was educated at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, and the University of Cambridge, England. Nicholson has served in executive roles in three American art museums: as executive director/CEO of the Telfair Museums, Savannah; executive director of the Frick Pittsburgh; and the deputy director for art and education and head of exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Since 2020, Nicholson has worked with museums including the Honolulu Museum of Art and the Princeton University Art Museum.

Nicholson brings a modern approach to the model of art museums. We talked to him about his vision for The James Museum.

The James’ values statement says the museum believes that diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion matter. How do you implement these values?

Historically ... art museums have tended to be perceived as a sort of elite institutions for the rich. I started my museum career in America at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, that was very much what it was and it transformed itself during my time there, both physically but also in terms of accessibility and inclusion and diversity. And that was done through a number of things, which really was doing exhibitions which looked at a variety of different diverse communities. Collecting works from diverse communities, particularly African American arts, was a significant position. And then ... creating programs that affected a number of people, a lot of people who had never set foot at the museum before. I think that’s something that all museums really need to focus on now, and work out ways that they can be appealing to people who wouldn’t normally think they will go to an art museum.

Is attendance one of the challenges that museums face?

I’ve always had this concept, which I use in a lot of the sort of marketing and outreach that I’ve done in my museums, but there are a group of people I call the “persuadables.” Those are people who don’t necessarily think about going to a museum, but if you offer the right opportunities there, they can be persuaded and they will become supporters of the museum, even just by their physical presence. ... (The) traditional audience tends to be more elderly... Obviously, that generation is going to fade away and the goal is to really bring in a new generation who will be the lifeblood of the museum. And that’s an interesting challenge, but I’m optimistic it can be achieved.

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You’ve pledged a commitment to examining issues of cultural appropriation and the interaction of Western and indigenous artistic visions at the museum. What does that mean?

Emily (Kapes, the museum’s curator) and her team have done a great job of bringing in exhibitions that really test the boundaries. Obviously the core collection is the vision of Tom and Mary James and they are more visual type of collectors in terms of what they have acquired. But the appeal of this position is that (everyone has been) open to the idea that there’s opportunities to analyze the collection and create dialogues, both to indigenous art, but also contemporary art.

The last thing you want the museum to be is just a mausoleum of Western art ... I think that the idea of looking through Western eyes at non-western (and) indigenous cultures is something that the museum definitely has to consider. As we look at the narrative and the explanation of why these East Coast artists painted Native Americans in the West — was this just because they were exotic, or because they were just trying to tell the story — I think there’s all sorts of ways you can analyze that. ... That’s an interesting exploration for me, as I start to understand what we’ve done in the past ... and what the thinking is about how we develop that in the future and make it more compelling and we understand why this collection tells the stories it does, and how we can amplify that in a meaningful way that respects both the artist and the subject.