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Detroit's first family of the arts: Dell and Sharon Pryor



Tulani Rose and the Dell Pryor Gallery occupy the large, orangish brick corner of Willis Street and Cass Avenue, an original anchor of now hip Midtown. With few windows, it can look imposing from the outside; inside, however, the curious are rewarded handsomely, with the paintings of eminent local artists draped in soft light, with sculptures that wend across the hardwood floors, the occasional stick of incense burning aromatic ribbons in the air. And in the back, of course, will be one of two ebullient Pryors—Detroit's first family of the arts.

Dell and Sharon Pryor will not be unfamiliar names to patrons of the arts in Detroit, but the historical and cultural weight of the Pryors is too often overlooked by so many rushing past for coffee or muffins at neighboring Avalon Breads.  

Dell Pryor’s cultural impact on Detroit can be traced in a wide arch across the city, from Eastern Market through points downtown, spanning the latter half of the twentieth century, to the Midtown gallery today.

After college Dell had spent a good chunk of the '60s and '70s as a freelance commercial and residential interior designer. In school she had been eager to get out into the world and design. "I didn’t understand why I had to study art history, art appreciation, learn about painting and sculpting before I could start designing," she says. But In the end, it was the breadth and depth of that education that really "ignited" her passion for arts more broadly. In her design work she began commissioning local artists. "I became very excited about not just introducing my clients to art, but about finding places in people's homes and offices for artists' work to be shown." When these passions grew beyond the bounds of her work, she began a modest show space in Eastern Market.

A show space in the Market became a cultural destination in the late Trapper’s Alley throughout the '80s, but when the cranes of development came swinging through Greektown, the casino subsumed her space, and Dell moved to Harmonie Park.

Over a fifteen year span in Harmonie Park, Dell showcased and brought in local and national artists, as well as a performing arts component that focused largely on live jazz. This is the location, too, that her daughter Sharon began the Tulani Rose gallery in.

"When I moved into the space in Harmonie Park," Dell says, "Sharon called and said, 'Mom, I'm moving back to Detroit.'" Sharon came home from New York, where she had been working as a photographer for Essence and the Village Voice. "That's initially how I was able to get a lot of the New York artists [into the Harmonie Park gallery], because of Sharon's experience and connections in New York," Dell says. 

Development reared its head from on high again in Harmonie Park. The building owner sold to developers, who Dell was soon at loggerheads with. "We used to have heated arguments," she said. "They were telling me 'Art is not making any money. We can't put money into an art gallery, we need to build more eateries.'" Dell told them to take a stroll through New York or San Francisco, see if those cities had a place for the arts. They declined. They got their way. But Harmonie Park never took off the way they'd imagined. "That plan didn't work," Dell says. 

While Sharon helped bring New York artists into Detroit, Dell was no stranger to that city herself, having spent much of her youth there. Her parents and grandparents exposed her to art early and often—taking in plays and exhibits in New York, listening to live jazz in Detroit. This echoes down through the generations; Sharon says the walls in her house were covered in art growing up too, and the family would attend as many live performances as Dell could get them to. 

That nurturing of the creative spirit payed off. Sharon still runs Tulani Rose out of the Midtown location. One brother has served as the director of an art museum in New Jersey and as the Executive Director of Arts Education in New York. Another is an interior designer in metro Detroit, just like mom. Downtown, Dell’s grandson James Morris designs clothing for DSE Detroit, the popular boutique on Grand Street he founded.

After Harmonie Park, Dell and Sharon, with the Avalon bakery, moved onto an almost unrecognizable Willis Street. Crime was more prevalent and development practically non-existent. Because the space was so big, they invited other creatives and intellectuals in. Janet Jones came and sold books. Nefertiti provided natural hair care. The sign for the Spiral Collective—the name they gave to this early communal effort—still hangs out front of Tulani Rose and the Dell Pryor Gallery. Nefertiti has since expanded into her own salon down the street. Jones opened Source Booksellers, around the corner in the Auburn building. Pryor's Spiral Collective basically served as a business incubator for the neighborhood but, well, for want of better words, way cooler. They are surrounded now by new condos and retailers. 

"Every time I moved, it was always in the line of development—Greektown, Bricktown, Harmonie Park—always on the front line of development." she says. "What excited me about moving to Midtown, what I’ve got going here is, there are major 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, the Children's Museum are all over here." Midtown has become a "very solid cultural district," she says.  
 
I ask Dell if she's worried it could be exactly this that pushes her out again. 

"Right now it's taking everything I've got to keep these doors open," she says. "When it really starts getting hot, it's no secret: rent is going up. I don’t know if I'll be able to survive or not. I'm not making any complaints about any of that. We're glad to see it; progress must go on."
 
"But Detroit ain't gonna work with just one thing. If you want Detroit to be a healthy and whole community, you need all the parts." 

"If they want it to work, I hope they do all they can to keep art alive."

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This story originally appeared on our partner site Urban Innovation Exchange.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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