A bit of the American West, just west of Tampa Bay

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The sandstone entry into the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
The sandstone entry into the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. Photo Credit: Holly V. Kapherr

The massive blocks of striated sandstone adorning the facade and interior of the new James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in downtown St. Petersburg were cut and shipped from Jaipur, India. That fact alone makes it clear how few expenses were spared in the design and debut of the new galleries, which officially opened to the public on April 29.

The private collection of Thomas James, co-founder of financial firm Raymond James Financial, and his wife, Mary, forms the foundation of the two-story museum's public viewing space. The sandstone facade and interior mimic the canyons of "red rocks country," so when visitors enter, they are immersed in the warm, earthy tones of the American West.

The addition of the James Museum solidifies St. Petersburg's place as an important destination for art lovers, joining the city's Museum of Fine Arts, the Morean Arts Center, the Dali Museum, the Chihuly Collection and other galleries.

I attended the grand opening of the event, and as light streamed through the facade's entry windows and bounced off the sandstone's multicolored ribbons, it created a look you might see in Antelope Canyon's stunning curves. At the end of the entryway, an 18-foot, cascading granite fountain provides another recollection to the natural beauty of the western U.S. The architecture and interior design of the building was meant to combine three of the essential elements of Native American culture: sun, land, and water.

The building that houses the museum was originally a two-story department store, which opened in 1989. With the redesign and reconstruction of the building from spring of 2016 through this spring, the James Museum now houses more than 30,000 square feet of gallery space, filled with 400 works from more than 200 artists, including paintings, sculptures and jewelry depicting life in the Old West as well as contemporary art pieces from Native American artists.

I entered the gallery space, passing larger-than-life bronze sculptures of Native American tribe members and dignitaries in mixed media: beads, feathers and leather are used in the sculpture to honor the traditional dress of the tribes portrayed. The first stop before entering the gallery is a short orientation video, explaining the James' love of Western art and introducing some of the artists featured in the galleries. The short film is helpful in understanding why a museum dedicated to Western and wildlife art would be located on Florida's Gulf coast.

"The Hunter Becomes the Hunted," sculpture in bronze by Vic Payne, in the entryway of the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
"The Hunter Becomes the Hunted," sculpture in bronze by Vic Payne, in the entryway of the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. Photo Credit: Holly V. Kapherr

The eight galleries are divided by both perspective and chronology, beginning with the very first depictions of Native Americans and pioneers. Each gallery sports a different wall color to delineate the spaces and has been given a name. For example, as I entered the Early West gallery, the first one I encountered after exiting the orientation film, the rust-colored walls are adorned with works by Charles Russell, Frederic Remington and the Taos Society of Artists. The Frontier Gallery portrays cowboy culture and exploration on its red walls.

The pieces I enjoyed the most (and wished there were more of) were the ones in the Native Artists Gallery. These artists expressed their perspective on modern life for Native Americans from various tribes in the West. The works in this gallery convey a dimension to Native American identity that the other works in the museum simply do not, as they were mostly created by European-American artists. Adjacent to the Native Artists Gallery is the Jewel Box, where contemporary Native American jewelry is displayed in black-velvet cases.

If there's one thing that's missing here, it is context. The paintings are beautiful carry a historical significance. However, I found many of the deeper meanings of the art, especially the depictions of native culture, lost in translation. I found myself asking why there wasn't more information about the reasons for using certain features, furs and precious metals or stones. Some of the historical paintings were presented without context for their historical moment. I hope that as the museum develops, more information will be shared regarding these important traditions and their meanings.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Tuesdays, when it is open until 8 p.m. General admission is $20, with discounted rates for military, seniors, students, children under 18 years old. Forty-five-minute guided tours are free, and available on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., with no reservation required. Private, docent-led tours are also available if booked four weeks in advance of the visit and carry a small fee.

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