Bernice Chu has lived and worked in just three cities. She was Manager of Museum Operations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Director of Design at the New York Botanical Garden, and held similarly key positions at the Art Institute of Chicago, and at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Her third city? That culturally vibrant metropolis on the move, St. Petersburg, Florida. Bernice Chu is the Founding Director of the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, which opened in spring of this year.
Chu and her husband had talked vaguely about one day relocating to Florida. Out of the blue, the James Museum job posting, in mid-2017, caught her attention.
“In other positions, I would be going in to build an organization, instead of going in to fix one,” she says. “I was called in because they had to reorganize their department, it wasn’t working well. At every museum, it was ‘We have things that aren’t working well. So we need to change the way we do things. We need to change staff. So I was kind of like the fixer.’”
Since it was being built from the ground up, with no previous history, museum founders Tom and Mary James needed someone with both experience and vision. They needed Bernice Chu.
In those other museums, Chu continues, “I’d learned things that I didn’t want to replicate. I wanted things to be transparent. I wanted people in management positions to also be in the weeds. And everybody works seamlessly. Cross-training people, so that they know what other people do, and it’s not just so silo- ed. And this was that opportunity for me.”
With 60 people on the payroll, including administrative and visitor services staff, Chu has her work cut out for her.
The 80,000-square-foot museum houses approximately 500 pieces of art – mostly paintings and sculpture – from the James’ private collection of more than 4,000 (he’s chairman emeritus of Raymond James Financial). It’s not an historical or natural history museum – most of the pieces are by contemporary artists, depicting the western United States in the late 19th Century. “Because the collection is of private taste – a private collector and couple – it’s not really academic,” she says. “It’s a learning curve for everyone.”
Stills, she adds, “I think what is great about this place is that it’s living artists – it’s what Tom and Mary have done to support them. It’s the philosophy behind them.
“And I think it’s the building, the architecture. The way the galleries are so generous. You expect it to have a gallery feel, and it’s really a collection. The way it moves, and it tells a story.”
Moving forward, Chu explains, the challenge is to expand the museum’s educational programming – see what’s available by clicking here – and to keep growing its membership numbers.
“We want to really reach out for education,” she says. “And not just educating kids, but also about immigration and discrimination – especially relevant in today’s society. Because people don’t talk about the West any more and really, it’s a big part of our country.
“It’s not just the collection, it’s also about programs and how you want people to come in as revenue-building. It’s getting people to want to come back again, not just once.” The demographics, during these first months, have been skewing older. Chu has her sights on bringing in homeschool kids during the week; starting Sept. 4, Tuesday admission will be $10 for adults, $5 age 7-18). Tuesday nights will have special programming starting at 5 p.m., including live music, gallery sketching, movies and more.
The museum includes a state-of-the art auditorium and a huge ballroom/meeting space (Chu’s planning a square dance and line-dancing event in the latter).
Coming Sept. 28 is a whiskey-tasting, mechanical bull-riding, barbeque-palooza (“Boots, Bourbon & BBQ,” 6-10 p.m.). Think of it this way, Chu says: “It really isn’t a museum for the well-to-do. We really think of it as a community.”
And, like everybody else in her new community, Bernice Chu is still learning what the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art is all about.
“I was in larger museums, and smaller museums, but this is a particular genre,” she explains.
“I grew up on Westerns; I love them. I remember, we were traveling in Europe once and they were playing The Big Valley in Italian, every morning at 10 o’clock. And we did not leave the room until I finished watching.”