United and Delighted: Dell Pryor's Spiral Collective

Dell Pryor says she's always had an eye for what's hot, and it's hard to argue with her.

The art gallery owner has a knack for picking the right artists to promote, the right types of art to showcase and the right times to host a show, which is how she has built a reputation as one of the leading gallery owners in the market.

Her ability to spot trends has allowed Pryor to stay in business in this town since the 1970s. Despite a handful of moves over that time, mostly due to circumstances beyond her control, she has remained on the cultural radar and very much relevant.

She's also found strength through a business concept she put together called the Spiral Collective, located at the corner of Cass and West Willis on the same block as Avalon International Breads and Flo Boutique. The businesses housed within the collective are an amalgam of female entrepreneurs, each creatively doing her thing.

Art meets business

Pryor, a native Detroiter, is an art maven with an artsy yet matronly elegance that sometimes hides her business acumen. She spent time on the East Coast growing up, which helped broaden her horizons.

"I come from a family that's very art-oriented, so it's something I've been exposed to all my life, including art, visual and performing arts," Pryor says.

She worked as an interior designer for about 12 years before chasing her love for art. Back in the 1970s, she realized there wasn't much gallery space for artists, particularly black artists, and looked to fill the void.

"It gave me an opportunity to introduce many African-American artists," Pryor says.

Her experience in interior design helped introduce those artists to her business clients. She started showing art in Eastern Market, and then eventually moved to Greektown, where she built a modest following over a decade. Business boomed for a while, as the Trapper's Alley location built a reputation as a popular cultural destination during the 1980s, but ultimately gave way to the Greektown Casino. While she was there, she experienced the attraction of a collection of arts dealers assembled in close proximity.

Displaced, but undeterred, Pryor moved her business to Harmonie Park, a place many an urban planner worked to build into an inner-city entertainment hub.

She made the most of her time there, showcasing local artists and bringing in national artists and lecturers, as well as live jazz performers and performing artists, which built her a following. As more restaurants moved into the increasingly popular enclave, Pryor was pushed out again.

One day as the gallery owner was driving through the Cass Corridor, a corner space caught her eye. It was a nondescript building with not much to offer, but she saw potential. "I had vision. That's my thing. I have always had vision," Pryor says.

The building had no windows or walls at first, she says, calling it "a barn." She says that, looking back, it's easy to understand how her friends and family could doubt her judgment. She brought in contractors to cut in windows, erect walls and install lighting.

"What drew me to it was the excitement of taking something raw and brining it to life," she says. "Nobody could see it. … All they could see was a space. But I said, 'Let's just get in there, it'll be alright.'"

The building did have location as an advantage. It is a stone's throw from the Cultural District, the expanding Detroit Medical Center, the steadily sprawling Wayne State University and a gradually growing collection of loft developments that are turning once shuttered buildings into vibrant housing, offering access to clientele, a base she doesn't see going anywhere soon. "All of these communities are starting to connect," Pryor says.

And it's worked. Backed by Pryor's decades of art-world connections, her deep knowledge of what collectors want and her reputation, she's put on many splashy shows, some of which drew in wall-to-wall audiences. One show featured photographers from the Million Man March, another piggybacked of an exhibit by the Detroit Institute of Arts of black photographers by bringing in larger collections of their work. She's showcased artists like Chuck Stewart – whose vintage works are invaluable collectors items.

Collective strength

Then join you with them like a rib of steel, to make strength stronger, said William Shakespeare.

With the 2002 opening of Spiral Collective, Pryor saw an opportunity to create the same kind of communal art experience that brought customers in droves to Trapper's Alley.

Today, the Spiral Collective is home to Source Booksellers, Tulani Rose gift gallery, and Textures by Nefertiti (a natural hair shop), along with Pryor's art gallery. Women own all the businesses, and share everything, including space, expenses and marketing.

Janet Jones, proprietor of Source Booksellers, joined the Collective after 14 years of selling books in the city, mostly at fairs and various events. "I really think being in a shared space is cutting edge contemporary marketing," she says. "We do cross-fertilize with each other."

Customers are the biggest beneficiaries, Jones says, because they can shop for several different products and services under one roof. "All the way around I think we complement each other."

Pryor says it also helps that the business is attached to a stable cultural community, and relishes being part of the Detroit neighborhood.

"My passion for art is more than just making money. I fell like I am a part of a very important movement," Pryor says. "I've always been on the frontline with each one of these projects. So you might say to some extent I'm a bit of a pioneer because of what I've had to endure with each of these projects, but I thought it was important for me to be here."

Rodd Monts is an East Side Detroit-based writer and contributor to Model D. He writes a blog, too. Send feedback here.