The Collector’s Issue | When West Goes East


By Wolf Schneider; Photos by Mark Borosch

It all began during a raging snowstorm in Aspen, CO. Tom James, chairman and CEO of Raymond James Financial, Inc., which is headquartered in St. Petersburg, FL, decided that since he couldn’t ski in the blinding whiteout, he’d go shopping instead.

James, who already owned an impressive collection of artworks from Florida and New England, had begun traveling to the West in the 1980s. “When I got out there, I went into the galleries and museums and admired all the western art,” recalls James, who bought a house in Snowmass, not far from Aspen. “But in fiscal restraint, I deferred collecting any of it and continued to mainly collect art from Florida artists.”

Then came the fateful blizzard. “I decided I would finally go out and buy some western art,” he chuckles. He had seen and admired paintings by Native American artist Earl Biss before. On this particular day, James went into a gallery that represented Biss. “A new painting had been brought in, a very long piece, probably 40 by 80 inches. It was of Indians crossing a frozen lake, with a very spiritual quality to it.”

James noticed that the paint wasn’t even dry yet. He also noticed the artist was there in the gallery. So they began talking. “I was amazed by the poetry he attaches to some of his works,” says James about Biss. Before long, he had purchased the painting, WINTER SUNRISE CIRCLE OF THE BIG SKY PEOPLE, a stunning landscape in cornflower blues with subtle streaks of purple and yellow and blanketed Indian figures on horseback. Mostly comprised of snow and sky, it conveys a sense of peace in nature’s overwhelming panorama. This was the first piece of western art that James bought. If he had stopped right there, his discerning taste would’ve already been evident. But that was not the case.

“I went and bought five or six other paintings that day, from three or four other galleries,” James remembers. “I had set a limit for myself but ended up spending twice that much by the time I finished. But I had a great time negotiating.”

Back in Florida, James kept thinking about western art. So he contacted the owner of the now-defunct Taos Gallery in Taos, NM. “I gave him $100,000 and said, ‘What I would like to do is buy the best artists, especially the new Taos Six—Ray Vinella, Robert Daughters.’ This was about 20 years ago. I said, ‘Find me very high-quality pieces of theirs, then send me pictures.’” Purchasing those paintings by contemporary Taos artists led to an interest in the historic Taos artists who had preceded them, and now James owns a Joseph Henry Sharp painting and one by E.I. Couse, both of which hang in his office. But mainly he collects the works of living artists. Today there are 1,850 artworks in the Tom and Mary James/Raymond James Financial Art Collection, more than 90 percent of which is privately owned by Tom and his wife. And they’re still collecting.

Most of the artwork is displayed in the public areas of Raymond James Financial, which sprawls over five buildings. Worldwide the company has 2,200 branches and employs more than 7,000 people. It was founded by Tom’s father, Bob James, in 1962. Two years later it merged with Raymond and Associates, hence the name. Bob James started the art collection, concentrating mostly on American artists, specifically artists in Florida.

Tom joined his father’s company in the late 1960s, after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard College and Harvard Business School. Even in college, he had a flair for combining culture and economics. “I had the first James, rock ‘n’ roll band at Harvard. I knew [folk and blues singer] Tom Rush, and I sang along with Joan Baez on a couple of occasions,” James recalls fondly. He put together seven different bands, finding it a ruminative sideline to his studies. “My early art purchases were in New England, where I bought art on Sundays with some of my ill-begotten gains as a rock ‘n’ roll musician,” he confides.

Of the 1,850 paintings and sculptures now in the collection, about 1,450 are western or wildlife art. There are 25 wildlife paintings by Al Agnew and 23 by Matthew Hillier, many of them purchased from Plainsmen Gallery in Clearwater, FL. Every April, Raymond James Financial and Plainsmen Gallery co-host the Wildlife & Western Visions Art Show in St. Petersburg, bringing in well-known artists such as the late Ray Swanson, Fred Fellows, John Coleman, and Bruce Greene. Says Plainsmen Gallery founder Betty Brown, “Tom has been buying from us for over 20 years. He is our biggest collector. He’s bought a lot of Dave McGary’s sculptures.”

“There are 33 Dave McGary sculptures in the collection,” confirms curator Emily Burts, who places the artwork throughout the company’s 900,000-square-foot headquarters. “I’m here to support Tom’s efforts,” she adds. “He makes the final selection on all the art.” In addition to Plainsmen Gallery, James is also a regular at Aspen Grove Fine Arts in Aspen, CO; Mountain Trails Gallery in Park City, UT; and Altermann Galleries in Santa Fe, NM.

“Office space is the next best thing to a museum because we have a high-traffic area with about a million square feet here,” says James. “While I might have 35 or 40 western works in my house in Florida and another 30 in my Colorado house, I’ve got about 1,400 of them in the home office.”

The artworks are hung primarily in lobbies, conference rooms, and hallways. There are six Native American-themed floors, five wildlife-themed floors, and two cowboy-themed floors. A sculpture garden was added in 2006. Much of the collection is open to the public, and tour groups come through almost daily.

One of the newest pieces is a large painting by Navajo artist Tony Abeyta: UNTITLED LARGE RED DEITY, which measures 9 feet tall, is displayed in a tiered conference room. “I was first caught by the more traditional things [Abeyta] did—the big kachinas with sand mixed into the painting that he exhibited at Indian Market when he was 20,” says James, who has collected Abeyta’s work over many years and now has 11 pieces by the artist.

Probably the largest piece in the collection is PASSAGES III, a 20-foot-long, 6-foot-tall abstract triptych by Dan Namingha, who is of Hopi-Tewa ancestry. James owns 12 large works by Dan and another four by Arlo Namingha, his son. “What I really love about Dan is his ability to blend his Native American traditions into modern, abstract presentations,” reflects James. “Plus I like him personally. And he’s an ex-rock musician!”

James has developed friendships with many of the artists whose work he collects. “JD Challenger is a character and a half,” James says of the long-haired artist who specializes in portraits of Native Americans. James owns about 20 of Challenger’s pieces. “Talk about a salesman! I mean, you put that guy at one of his shows, and he’ll sell everything on the walls by himself,” says James.

Another contemporary western painter James is friends with and collects is Bill Schenck. “I’ve been to his house in Santa Fe many times. I wish there were more Bill Schencks and Ed Mells, to be frank,” he notes. “I have a lot of each of their work. I love the hard lines and the colors and the photographic kind of images that Bill does.”

James has never stopped collecting works by Earl Biss since that first piece he bought in Aspen years ago. He says his favorite Biss painting is one from his Native Americans in Chains series. It hangs in the boardroom, where James relies on it for both artistic and economic inspiration. “It’s a group of three chiefs, in chains, looking up to the spirits for guidance. I always tell people at board meetings: ‘Sometimes you have such perplexing problems that you have to ask for guidance,’” he says.

Why a western art collection in Florida? “In the summer, when it’s in the 90s with high humidity, it’s nice to be able to look around at winter scenes and mountains with Indians fishing in a stream,” says James. “And it’s very different from what you see here. So I’d have to say for the diversity. That’s why I think it’s important to have a collection of western art here in Florida. For the diversity. That and to share it with others.”

Featured in October 2008