Prior to coming to Gallatin, James earned a BFA at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and worked as a freelance director-designer, specializing in Renaissance and Baroque opera, with a particular interest in the music of colonial Latin America. As founder and artistic director of the baroque opera ensemble Ex Machina, he directed numerous productions of the early music theater of the Americas. In 2007, as co-producer of a festival of Mexican Baroque music, he began to think about returning to school to gain a wider academic knowledge of the arts and culture of the baroque Americas.
As a returning adult student, James said that Gallatin’s flexible program gave him the opportunity to focus on gaining the knowledge that he needed and to do the work he wanted to do. He studied art history, cultural history, economic history, and costume design, concentrating on the culture of Colonial Latin America. While at Gallatin, he was a featured guest at three conferences on aspects of colonial culture at the University of Panama and lectured at the National University of Mexico. His thesis,"Dress in the Hispanic New World, 1520–1820," was the first comprehensive discussion in any language of this topic.