Tampa Bay struck gold with Tom and Mary James. The generous couple have enhanced the economic and cultural landscapes of Tampa Bay for several decades – and they continue to be major contributors, particularly pouring their hearts into art and philanthropy.
“Tom and Mary James are true champions of our community,” shares Jeff Vinik, Water Street Tampa developer, Tampa Bay Lightning owner and fellow supporter of art and charity. “From their immense contributions to the arts to their continued commitment to the growth of Tampa Bay, they are models of both leadership and philanthropy.”
Among their most prominent legacies, the Jameses opened the state’s first and only Western art museum, The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art, in 2018. But first, a little history. Tom was born in Sandusky, Ohio, and moved to St. Petersburg as a child, while Mary grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, both captivated by cowboy and Indian movies. They met in college, where she studied zoology at Wellesley College and he studied economics at Harvard University. As they fell in love with each other, they also fell in love with art, picking up pieces to commemorate their road trips and travels across New England. Mary was an avid skier who drew Tom into the hobby and they took trips out west to Colorado, Utah and Arizona that would be foundational to their future museum.
“Skiing is what started the Western collection,” Mary shares. “We’d go to the Western cities like Vail or Aspen and all of the galleries were Western.”
Tom adds, “I fell in love with the art. What they have there, you don’t have here: mountains, cold weather, skiing, all the winter sports… We were collecting at the peak time when Western art was really popular and we were able to buy a lot of beautiful Western paintings.”
The Jameses have always been intentional about supporting living artists, researching and meeting those they purchased from, whether at museums or galleries or on the streets. Mary also became captivated by Native American jewelry, first seeing it at Santa Fe’s Indian Market; it, too, would become part of their future museum’s collection.
“It’s beautiful and its craftsmanship is like nothing else,” she notes.
After moving to The Sunshine City together, the Jameses persisted with passionately collecting art. Attending shows in the area, they befriended many artists and especially enjoyed investing in young talent on the cusp of being discovered. The Jameses even started hosting their own arts shows, eventually sponsoring the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, one of Tampa Bay’s largest annual art shows.
“I met a lot of local and traveling artists there who helped educate my taste,” Tom recalls.
His impact on Tampa Bay’s art scene was taken to the next level when he joined the board for The Dalí Museum, building key relationships as chairman for nearly 20 years.
“The Dalí is the gift that keeps on giving, so it’s there continuing to make this a strong community and we need more of that,” Tom says. “When you look at how it all fits together, you’d be amazed at how it actually connects.”
The Jameses started dreaming of their own museum and with their vision, dedication, extensive art collection and strong community connections, they made it a reality. Tom and Mary personally invested about $75 million to design and build the 88,000-square-foot museum (one of the largest museums in Tampa Bay) in about three years. Over 400 pieces of their 3,000-work collection are on display, acquired during the last half century. Classic and contemporary artists from the West are showcased, as well as a variety of other genres, such as impressionism, cubism and surrealism.
“The James Museum is one of the greatest love stories,” Debbie Sokolov, director of development for the museum, proclaims. “Every piece of art in this museum represents an experience they had together. Their passion is self-evident and they love this community.”
Located on Central Avenue in the heart of Downtown St. Petersburg, the museum adds to an already robust arts scene with the Museum of Fine Arts, Chihuly Collection and The Dalí Museum just blocks away. (Plus, the Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement opened in 2021.)
“My mission in building this museum was to build an art center that would serve as a destination for those who want to go spend a week or long weekend looking at art at a bunch of different museums,” Tom says. “I did this to create this focal point because it was good for the community. I wanted to give back to the city and I talked to Mary about it and she thought that would be a good thing to do, so she took it on as much as I did.”
The James Museum includes over 26,000 square feet of gallery space within eight galleries, a 2,500-square-foot indoor sculpture court, a two-story sandstone lobby with an 18-foot waterfall, a 129-seat theater, 5,875 square feet of event space, a museum store and a cafe. Under the direction of architect Yann Weymouth, St. Pete Design Group designed the masterpiece of a museum, including a compelling, towering facade that imitates Southwestern steppes and canyons outside and inside the museum.
“It’s just so lovely and peaceful to come here,” Mary says.
Laura Hine, who met Tom and Mary about 15 years ago and is proud to be their museum’s executive director, shares, “Building this museum was part of building cultural tourism for economic development. It was really a gift to the city and to the people from an economic perspective. But on a more emotional level, they truly believe in the impact of art on people’s lives as a humanity and I think that’s really beautiful.”
Sharing The Wealth
Tom built his wealth through his father’s company, Raymond James Financial. He exponentially grew its revenue as its CEO of 40-plus years and now serves as chairman emeritus. Under his leadership, Raymond James Financial recently was named Tampa Bay’s third-largest public company and 24th-largest employer, highly respected and well known with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ stadium taking its namesake.
Tom is one of seven Tampa Bay billionaires who landed on Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest individuals this year, with his net worth reported at $2.3 billion — but the Jameses don’t keep their fortune to themselves. They are among the region’s most generous financial givers, leveraging their personal and business funds to make a major impact on education, health care, hunger and more.
“I think you have to give back,” Tom says. “You have to make these places great for health, education and cultural support… All this fits together. It’s like putting together a big puzzle. It’s very important you have a well-rounded community with great educational people from all over and all kinds of diversity.”
“I think they’ve touched almost every organization in our community,” Sokolov says. “They feel very strongly about the arts. They care about human services and social services deeply and also about helping our community. What a gift it is to have Raymond James and Tom and Mary James here because they’ve made such an incredible difference and it comes from a very authentic place.”
Tom notes, “If you want to have a place where you want to have good employees, it’s got to be a great place to live and you need to work on the infrastructure and get private people engaged in it — not just giving money, but by going on the boards of the charities, helping them succeed and do their job better.”
He has done just that as a member and past chairman of the Florida Council of 100, chairman of the board of the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, past chairman of the Florida Council of Economic Education and past member of the board of Junior Achievement of Pinellas County. In addition, Tom runs the No Name Group, an informal group of key leaders from across the region that tackle problems, support charities and look to unify Tampa Bay. Tom also has poured into the United Way of Tampa Bay as a board member, campaign chair and founding chairman of its top affinity group, the Alexis de Tocqueville Society, which raised nearly $100 million since its 1987 inception.
“Tom James has played an iconic role in helping us grow into an organization that now serves five counties,” United Way Suncoast CEO Jessica Muroff says. “I don’t know where United Way Suncoast would be today without the guidance and support Tom has given to the organization.”
He has received numerous well-deserved awards and honors for his industry leadership, support of the arts, philanthropic activities and community service. Perhaps even more importantly, he has been a role model for others.
Hine shares, “I hope he can inspire the next generation of philanthropists in this community.”