The Old West on the Gulf Coast: Downtown's new James Museum is underway

Is Central Avenue ready for the Grand Canyon?

click to enlarge Computer rendering of the new museum. - Courtesy of the James Museum of Western + Wildlife Art
Courtesy of the James Museum of Western + Wildlife Art
Computer rendering of the new museum.

Before long, a 10-story sandstone monolith will be shouldering aside the other landmarks on downtown St. Pete's main drag: The new James Museum of Western + Wildlife Art is set to open in less than a year.

Construction is underway beneath a gaggle of cranes on Central Avenue. The museum will feature 30,000 square feet of gallery space plus a theater and an event space, curator Emily Kapes told a roomful of buzzing art-lovers Thursday. The art will largely be from the far side of the Mississippi, a tribute to founders Tom and Mary James's love for the American West. Yes, the Sunshine City will be a home for images of the Grand Canyon and the snow-topped Rockies.

Just like the Salvador Dalí Museum, people will surely be playing the "Wait, how did this end up in St. Pete again?" game for a long time. If the James Museum is lucky, that surreal dissonance will breed a similar kind of interest. Ideally it will be evidence of St. Petersburg's strength as an arts destination, able to sustain such a broad set of collections.

(And to be fair, no one ever asks why, say, the American Folk Art Museum is located in Manhattan. NYC is not known for its outsider artists; seen many unschooled rustics wandering the Upper West Side with a can of sign paint lately? Me neither.)

The art will be sourced from the Jameses' large private trove, gathered over decades of collecting. In the 1960s they used to trundle out to art fairs to buy their first pieces; one suspects they do their buying in a little more style now. The art has been decorating the walls of Raymond James Financial's offices (yes, same James). Public tours have been available for years. But a change to a sleeker building will give the art — and its handlers — room to breathe.

click to enlarge Curt Walters. "A Sense of Time." 2006. 60" x 80". - Courtesy of the James Museum of Western + Wildlife Art
Courtesy of the James Museum of Western + Wildlife Art
Curt Walters. "A Sense of Time." 2006. 60" x 80".

Space will no longer be an issue. The large pink building occupies the entire 100 block of Central Ave., with two floors given over to the museum, creating more gallery space than The Dalí and about half as much as the Museum of Fine Arts. The Dalí's architect Yann Weymouth did the honors here, too. In renderings the flamingo-hued edifice is split by the tall sandstone formation, which visitors will enter like cliff-dwellers in Mesa Verde. That contrast sums up the museum's big overall task: to evoke the Old West on the Gulf Coast.

Tough task? Maybe not as tough as you'd think. The Sunshine State's past has hidden, uncanny similarities to the West's. Florida's cattle industry is the oldest on the continent. Its history was shaped by the "Crackers," frontiersmen who were cowboys to the core. It even has a long history of brutal Indian conflicts, try as we may to forget. And both the West and Florida are places where nature tends to overwhelm, gloriously, the human scene.

There are plenty of parallels; it remains to be seen whether the James Museum will take advantage of them. Early statements from curator Kapes suggest that there will be some space for artists closer to home. It will be interesting to see how homegrown artists will fare in that context — the Florida Highwaymen by the High Sierra. Just as it will be interesting to see St. Pete accommodate its new and impressive sandstone slab.

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