Although their collection originally focused on antique quilts, the Jameses quickly came to understand that quilts had also become a contemporary form of artistic expression. They began to add pieces made by artists who chose quilts as their primary medium, many of whom are now considered among the vanguard of studio quilt artists. The James Collection includes such masterpieces as Michael James' "Bias Cut," Terrie Hancock Mangat's "Fireworks," and Nancy Crow's "Lady of Guadeloupe II."

Looking back, Penny McMorris notes: "Robert and Ardis James were so important to the whole movement in that not only did they have an eye, they bought. ... They were the first and most important collectors of contemporary quilts." As one indicator of the Jameses' seriousness about new work, they insisted that when their collection traveled to Japan in 1990 they include 10 contemporary pieces, despite the fact that the organizers had only asked for antique quilts.

Ardis, especially, had an incisive and finely tuned appreciation of art quilts. In describing Faith Ringgold's "The Women: Mask Face Quilt #1" and "The Men: Mask Face Quilt #2," she wrote:

"In these two quilts Faith Ringgold shows both a painter's inventive composition and a quiltmaker's sensitive combining of fabrics. ... Ringgold's affection for herself and her community is visible and strong. She asks us into her celebration of life; it's an invitation hard to resist."