Bernice Chu, Founding Director of St. Petersburg’s James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, is leaving after two years in the position.
Chu, who joined the museum team while the facility was still under construction, has accepted an executive position with the International African American Museum, currently being built in Charleston, S.C. Her last day with the James Museum will be Aug. 2.
Tom James, chairman emeritus of Raymond James Financial, and his wife Mary built the 80,000-square foot museum to house their expansive collection of contemporary art.
Chu had previously held key positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
When she was brought aboard Team James, construction on the facility was nearly complete. “So I didn’t have much input in terms of design, except how I envisioned the museum after we opened,” she said. “To make some changes there. This one is a little earlier in the game.”
Located at the historic site of Gadsden’s Wharf, the 40,000-square-foot International African American Museum has a reported price tag of $75 million.
“It’s the site where 49 percent of the people who were indentured as slaves arrived,” Chu said. “So to me it’s a really meaningful project, and I think it will touch the lives of a lot of people when they come to see it. They’ve asked me to come help with the buildout, and help establish the organization the way I did for the James.
“For most of the people who have descendants, it’s not like just talking about the history of slavery, but also to memorialize and celebrate the accomplishments since then. Despite the fact that they came in as slaves.”
Despite what she called “growing pains,” Chu said she’s proud of the changes she helped implement at the James Museum, including increasing community outreach through diverse programming and helping to grow the membership base.
“These people mean a lot to me,” she explained. “They are all part of the growth of the museum, and the successes that we’ve had. I’ve started to restructure so that we have a core leadership, and Tom will be coming to the museum more often.”
She doesn’t feel as if she’s “abandoning” the James. “No, this means too much to me,” Chu replied, “especially the museum team. And also Tom and Mary. We had a meeting last week and I think Tom feels comfortable also that we’re still going strong.”
In a press release, James said “Mary and I would like to thank Bernice for her leadership, service and commitment to the museum, and wish her the very best in her future endeavors.
“Mary and I will work with our core leadership team at the museum to oversee the transition until the appointment of a new director.”