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Eric Pryor Makes His Mark in the Arts

First Black leader of Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts wants to elevate diverse work

spinner image eric pryor the president of the pennsylvania academy of fine arts tands in front of two paintings on the left is pat lyon at the forge by john neagle and on the right is three wise men greeting entry into lagos by kehinda wiley
Eric Pryor is the first black leader of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Courtesy Jeffrey Holder

Eric Pryor started his college career with a focus on basketball. But where he wound up in life was among paintings, sculptures and artists.

Pryor, 59, was recently named the first Black leader of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Founded in 1805 by artists and business leaders, PAFA is the nation’s first and oldest art school and museum, according to the organization’s website, and focuses on historic and contemporary American art. PAFA also provides graduate and undergraduate arts classes and educational programs for younger students as well as adults.

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As the new president and CEO, Pryor is the face of the institution, raising money, building partnerships, encouraging his curatorial staff and making sure the public understands PAFA’s mission. 

Pryor isn’t new to this world. Before his move to PAFA, he spent more than six years leading the Harlem School of the Arts in New York City, where he charted the organization’s course and oversaw day-to-day operations for the cultural center, which brings the arts to thousands of underserved students and their families.

But his ascent into the world of fine arts was not preordained. Pryor, who grew up in Detroit and attended college in Georgia on a Division II basketball scholarship, switched his major from business to art, then gave up the scholarship. He eventually returned to Detroit, where his mother, Dell Pryor, is a well-known gallerist and champion of Black artists. Pryor earned a bachelor’s degree in painting from Detroit’s Wayne State University and a master’s in fine art from Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Pryor’s journey has made him a pragmatic advocate for artists of color, who have often been marginalized or ignored.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

A childhood interest intensified in college

In Detroit there was a company called Broom Design, and they created one of the first lines of greeting cards with Black images. So that was an early thing. But I didn’t really take it seriously as something I would do for a living. That happened later, when I was in college. My mom and dad were both entrepreneurs, and I never saw them work for companies. So I knew I wanted my own business. I was a business major. And around that same time my best friend was a guy named Demar Loving. His father, Al Loving, was a painter in New York City. We took a trip to the East Coast, and I met his dad, and he took me and his son out to the Hamptons. This was in the ’80s, and all of a sudden, I was exposed to different artists, like David Hammons and a bunch of other people. It was transformative.

 [The artists’] curiosity piqued my curiosity and made me want to be part of that community. After that trip, I changed my major to art, played basketball for another year, and then I walked away from the scholarship and went on a journey of the arts. I knew I wanted to be in a community. I wanted to be around people like that.

A painter who wanted to educate others about art

When I finished my graduate degree [in Philadelphia], I was figuring out how I was going to survive. I ended up getting jobs as a teaching artist in various community-based arts organizations. I’d interact with these kids, and it was interesting how they responded to creative practice. It reminded me of how I responded to some of my early encounters with sports. That was the beginning of me really recognizing the importance of arts education and how it could be a catalyst for a young person.

Inspiration came from one of the first African American artists to receive widespread recognition

The first time I saw Henry O. Tanner’s work in person was here at PAFA. I learned it was here and that was part of the visit for me. I wanted to see his work because at that time I also was looking for myself, if that makes sense, as a young Black man trying to recognize the intersection of who I am historically and the community I come from and where that intersection was.

An opportunity to elevate diverse artistic works

My previous experience of curating exhibitions of artists of color, as well as my previous leadership roles at Harlem School of the Arts and the New Jersey State Museum, has given me the unique perspective of running institutions with more diverse audiences and knowing what those audiences are attracted to. I hope to use that knowledge to create programming, exhibitions and education that attract all people.

PAFA has a long history of educating, collecting and exhibiting the work of Black artists, which was one of the things that attracted me to this position. PAFA was the first institution to train artists like Tanner and Mary Howard Jackson. This and PAFA’s world-renowned collection of American art provide a strong base for me to promote change in the evolving art college and museum field and to inspire other leaders to do the same. My goal is to give a voice to artists who have been historically marginalized without stifling those whose talent has been afforded more opportunities. 

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Artists of color face unique hurdles

There are many challenges that all artists face today, [including] the cost of materials, owning or renting studio space, shipping, marketing and maintaining a database of their art inventory. Artists now need to function as entrepreneurs to sell and promote themselves and their work. Artists of color have an additional challenge of accessing patrons, collectors and galleries. As an artist and now the president of PAFA, I understand the importance of giving students the tools necessary for success in their chosen field, and our curatorial team remains committed to collecting and presenting the work of women and artists of color. In fact, in 2021, two-thirds of the acquisitions made by PAFA for its permanent collection were by women and artists of color.

Meaningful art in Pryor’s life ranges from Al Loving’s work to his 16-year-old daughter’s

[Loving’s] work is beautiful. I love it. He’s just meant so much in my life. Al was the kind of person who loved making art with people around him, which is unique. When you went to his studio and visited him, it wasn’t some secret thing where you couldn’t see how he made something. He would do it. And he just loved making art with music on and holding court and just talking and cutting out shapes.

My daughter, Micah, did some portraits, and she was really kind of hiding them. That’s one of the things when you’re around people like me who are trained in that area — people can feel a little intimidated. I was, like, “Wow, where did you do that from? How did you do that?”

Lisa Kennedy, a regular AARP film critic, is a former Village Voice editor (1986-1996) and Denver Post film critic (2003-2015) who writes on popular culture, race and gender for Variety, The New York Times, Essence, American Theatre, the Denver Post and others.

AARP features editor Michelle Davis contributed to this story.

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