Museum of American West in Florida?

By Tamara Lush Associated Press

AP PHOTO

Visitors look at an installation inside the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, Fla. on April 11. When you think of Florida, the Grand Canyon’s colored stone walls don’t come to mind. Neither do cowboys, wolves or Native American silver-and-turquoise jewelry. In downtown St. Petersburg, all of those icons of the American West are on display in the new museum.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — When you think of Florida, the colored stone walls of the Grand Canyon don't come to mind. Neither do cowboys, wolves or Native American silver-and-turquoise jewelry.

In downtown St. Petersburg, all of 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 this month. The 80,000-squarefoot space is two blocks from the glittering blue waters of Tampa Bay. But at the museum's front door, visitors are transported west. For vacationers in the Gulf Coast city, it will be a fascinating cultural respite from sun, sand and palm trees.

THE BUILDING

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-story black granite waterfall is the centerpiece 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 centerpiece for the cafe. It's a 19th century antique in itself, from a hotel in San Francisco.

THE ART

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 sanitized theme parks. Even the gallery walls are painted in earthy, Southwestern colors.

All of the art was collected over decades by billionaire Thomas James, chairman emeritus of the Raymond James financial services company, and his wife Mary. Much of the art once decorated the corporate offices of the company, which is based in St. Petersburg.

"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 that nearly all the artists featured are still alive.

The collection is organized 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 jewelry 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.