Detroit’s first family of the arts: Dell and Sharon Pryor
Tulani Rose and the Dell Pryor Gallery are located on the large, orange brick corner of Willis Street and Cass Avenue, an original anchor of hip Midtown. With a few windows it can look imposing from the outside; Inside, however, the curious are rewarded with the paintings of eminent local artists cloaked in soft light, sculptures wandering across the wooden floors, and the occasional incense-burning aromatic ribbons in the air. And in the background, of course, will be one of two vibrant Pryors – Detroit’s first family of the arts.
Dell and Sharon Pryor will be no unknown names to the Detroit arts patrons, but the Pryors’ historical and cultural weight is too often overlooked by so many who drink coffee or muffins at neighboring Avalon Breads.
Dell Pryor’s cultural impact on Detroit can be traced across the city, from Eastern Market to downtown spots spanning the second half of the 20th century to today’s Midtown Gallery.
After college, Dell had spent much of the 1960s and 1970s as a freelance commercial and residential interior designer. In school, she had endeavored to go out into the world and design. “I didn’t understand why I had to study art history, appreciate art, and learn about painting and sculpture before I could start designing,” she says. But in the end it was the breadth and depth of this training that really “ignited” her passion for art in the broader sense. In her design work, she began using local artists. “I was very excited not only to introduce my clients to art, but also to find places in people’s homes and offices where artist work could be shown.” When these passions grew beyond the confines of her work, she began a humble showroom in the Eastern Market.
A showroom in the market became a cultural destination on the late Trapper’s Alley in the 1980s, but as the development’s cranes swung through Greektown, the casino subsumed their space and Dell moved to Harmonie Park.
Over a period of fifteen years at Harmonie Park, Dell featured and brought in local and national artists, as well as a performing arts component primarily focused on live jazz. This is also the place where her daughter Sharon opened the Tulani Rose Gallery.
“When I moved into the room at Harmonie Park,” says Dell, “Sharon called and said,” Mom, I’m moving back to Detroit. “Sharon came home from New York, where she had worked as a photographer Essence and the Village Voice.” That’s how I was able to attract many New York artists in the beginning [into the Harmonie Park gallery], because of Sharon’s experience and connections in New York, “says Dell.
Developments in Harmonie Park raised their heads from above again. The client sold to developers with whom Dell soon came into conflict. “We used to have violent arguments,” she said. “They told me, ‘Art doesn’t make money. We can’t put money in an art gallery, we need to build more restaurants.'” Dell told them to take a walk around New York or San Francisco to see if these Cities had a place for the arts. They refused. They found their way. But Harmonie Park never turned out the way they imagined. “That plan didn’t work,” says Dell.
While Sharon brought New York artists to Detroit, Dell was no stranger to the city herself, having spent much of her youth there. Her parents and grandparents introduced her to art early and often – they recorded plays and exhibitions in New York and listened to live jazz in Detroit. This echoes back through the generations; Sharon says the walls in her house are covered in art as well, and the family would attend as many live performances as Dell could get.
This encouragement of the creative mind has paid off. Sharon is still running Tulani Rose from Midtown. One brother was director of an art museum in New Jersey and executive director of arts education in New York. Another is an interior designer on Metro Detroit, just like mom. Downtown, Dell’s grandson James Morris designs clothes for DSE Detroit, the popular Grand Street boutique he founded.
After Harmonie Park, Dell and Sharon moved the Avalon Bakery to an almost unrecognizable Willis Street. Crime was more common and development virtually non-existent. Because the room was so large, they invited other creative and intellectuals. Janet Jones came and sold books. Nefertiti provided natural hair care. The sign for the Spiral Collective – the name they gave this early collaborative effort – still hangs in front of Tulani Rose and the Dell Pryor Gallery. Nefertiti has since grown into her own parlor on the street. Jones opened Source Booksellers around the corner in the Auburn building. Pryor’s Spiral Collective basically served as the neighborhood incubator, but far cooler for lack of better words. You are now surrounded by new condos and retailers.
“Every time I moved, it’s always been on the line of development – Greektown, Bricktown, Harmonie Park – always at the forefront of development.” She says. “What excited me about moving to Midtown, what I’m planning to do here, is that there are big museums here, not just the DIA, but MOCAD, N’Namdi; the main library is up the street, Wayne State University around The corner. The Wright Museum, the History Museum, and the Children’s Museum are everywhere. “Midtown has become a” very solid cultural district, “she says.
I ask Dell if they are concerned that this is exactly what they are putting out.
“Right now everything is needed to keep these doors open,” she says. “When it gets really hot, it’s no secret: the rent goes up. I don’t know whether I can survive or not. I’m not complaining about it. We’re happy to see it, progress must continue.”
“But Detroit isn’t going to work with just one thing. If you want Detroit to be a healthy and whole community, you need all of the parts.”