Museum director Laura Hine radically transformed an existing building into a world-class museum. (James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art)

Though Florida forts once held tribal prisoners of the Indian wars, few people would otherwise connect the state to the American West. But in 2018 St. Petersburg welcomed the new 80,000-square-foot James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art (with 26,000 square feet of gallery space), and its executive director has a distinct Old West connection. Laura Hine is a great-granddaughter of Pat Garrett, the New Mexico sheriff who shot and killed Billy the Kid in 1881. Hine even named her youngest son Garrett, though she downplays that family tie. “I named him after my mother,” she says, “who just happens to be the granddaughter of Pat Garrett.”

While a Western museum in the South may seem unlikely, so does Hine’s path to being appointed director. A Tampa native, she studied aerospace engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis Md., spent six years as a naval surface warfare officer, then became a licensed general contractor in her hometown. She met and married Hank Hine, director of St. Petersburg’s Dalí Museum, and through him got to know Tom and Mary James, art patrons with an extensive collection of Western and wildlife art. When the couple decided to gift that collection to the St. Petersburg community, Tom James tapped contractor Hine to design the building and its galleries. “It was a radical renovation of an existing building that was essentially a parking garage,” Hine says. “How do you turn that into a world-class museum?”

Harry Jackson’s dynamic 1978 bronze “Two Champs” is among the many masterworks. (James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art)

Today museum visitors start in the Introductory gallery, featuring a range of Western paintings and sculptures. The succeeding Early West gallery presents such masters as Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. Next up is the Native Life gallery, which relates the history and culture of American Indian tribes. The linked Native Artists and Jewel Box galleries showcase contemporary Indian art and jewelry, respectively. Fur traders, cowboys and other “new arrivals” are the focus of the Frontier gallery. The Wildlife gallery expands beyond Western animal life for a global perspective on conservation issues. Finally, the New West gallery looks at the region through the prism of pop, cubist, surreal and other modern genres.

Indian-rendered paintings grace the Native Artists gallery. (James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art)

Hine took the helm as director in 2019 at Tom James’ urging. “He said, ‘You have good business sense, you have good common sense, and you’re good with people,’” she recalls. “Our vision is to be an influential and thought-provoking museum that inspires every visitor. That’s a big vision. I think that our exhibitions over the next couple of years might demonstrate that that’s the direction we’re going.”

That lineup includes “Warhol’s West” (Oct. 2, 2021–Jan. 9, 2022); “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories” (Jan. 28–March 16, 2022); “Ansel Adams: The Masterworks” and “Clyde Butcher: America the Beautiful” (April 30–June 31, 2022); and “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West” (Sept. 3, 2022–Jan. 8, 2023).

“The potential here is so high,” Hine says, “and I feel really great about that.” WW

This article was published in the October 2021 Wild West.