American West on display under Florida sun

Tamara Lush
The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art brings Old West history to sun and surf-mad Florida

When you think of Florida, the coloured stone walls of the Grand Canyon don't come to mind. Neither do cowboys, wolves or Native American silver-and-turquoise jewellery.

In downtown St Petersburg, those icons of the American west are on display in a new museum.

It's called the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art, and it opened in April. The 7400sqm space is two blocks from the glittering blue waters of Tampa Bay. But at the museum's front door, visitors are transported west. For holidaymakers in the Gulf Coast city, it will be a fascinating cultural respite from sun, sand and palm trees.


The entrance is through a sandstone sculptural exterior evoking mesas of the American southwest. That aesthetic - of cliffs and cave dwellings and vertical forms - runs throughout the museum. A two-storey black granite waterfall is the centrepiece of the entrance.

A high ceiling and cubist angles frame a bank of windows at the entrance, allowing Florida's sun to shine through. Through the gift shop, a massive wooden bar that looks like something out of a Nevada saloon is the centrepiece for the cafe. It's a 19th-century antique in itself, from a hotel in San Francisco.


There are 400 pieces on display, from large sculptures of Native Americans on horseback to pop-art conceptual paintings of the pioneer spirit. It's unusually earthy and rustic fare, especially for a state that's known for beaches, alligators and sanitised theme parks. Even the gallery walls are painted in earthy, southwestern colours.

All the art was collected over decades by billionaire Thomas James, chairman emeritus of the Raymond Jones financial services company, and his wife, Mary.

"The collection is inspired by Tom's fascination with cowboy lore," museum director Bernice Chu said.

Many western-themed collections in other parts of the country showcase works from the 19th and early 20th centuries, like Frederic Remington's famous depictions of the Old West. What's different about this collection is nearly all the artists featured are still alive.

The collection is organised in six themes. Native American life includes artwork that tells the story of the complicated and often brutal history of how Native Americans were treated. A room called The Jewel Box in the Native American artists area displays contemporary Native American jewellery owned by Mary James, who has "free rein" to dip into the collection and take out "anything she wants" to wear, Chu said.

A wildlife exhibition is the only one that's not dedicated to the west. That display includes paintings and sculptures of animals from around the globe, which will delight younger visitors.


The Museum of Western & Wildlife Art is the latest museum in a city that's increasingly becoming known as an arts hub.

One of the museum's architects, Jann Weymouth, created another unique local institution: the nearby Dali museum, which is devoted to works of Spanish artist Salvador Dali.

In 2019, the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement is expected to open, housing businessman Rudy Ciccarello's collection of furniture, pottery, tile, metalwork, lighting, photography and other decorative arts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art: 150 Central Avenue, St Petersburg, Florida, visit . Open daily, 10am-5pm, and on Tuesdays until 8pm. Adults, $US20 ($A27); students, military, seniors $US15; children ages 7-18, $US10; kids six and under free.