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PAFA selects head of Harlem School of the Arts as its new president and CEO

Eric G. Pryor becomes first Black leader of nation's oldest art school and museum.

Eric Pryor posed for a portrait at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on Wednesday. Pryor, former head of the Harlem School of the Arts, has been named the next PAFA president.
Eric Pryor posed for a portrait at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on Wednesday. Pryor, former head of the Harlem School of the Arts, has been named the next PAFA president.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Eric G. Pryor, 59, fresh from steering the Harlem School of the Arts through a major $9.5 million building renovation and into a period of financial stability, has been named president and chief executive of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Pryor, president and CEO of the Harlem school since 2015, will take over the Academy on Jan. 18, succeeding David Brigham, who resigned in November of 2020 to run the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Brigham’s departure from PAFA came amid disruptions caused by the pandemic and controversies connected to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pryor now becomes the first African American leader for the 216-year-old art school and museum.

He called his appointment important in that regard, noting that PAFA currently has a woman who is chair of the board of trustees and only its second female administrative leader, Elizabeth Warshawer, interim chief executive.

“We all want to see the diversity of America reflected in our leadership. I think that’s always important,” Pryor said in a telephone interview from New York.

“I think it’s important that when we have strong female leadership that the opportunity [for them] is there. Or they’re not blocked from an opportunity because they are a woman or not blocked because they’re African American or Latinx.”

Anne E. McCollum, first female president of the PAFA board of trustees, said race and gender were not considerations in selection of the new institutional leader. Warshawer, she said, has been available for the past year, which “gave us the time that we needed to pause, step back, reevaluate, start to reimagine the future, and then to reemerge” with new leadership.

“We were looking for the best leader, and it just so happens that in this instance, the best leader for PAFA’s future through our search was a man,” said McCollum.

“If he had been green, he still would have been that person,” she said. “And as the first woman chair for the institution in 216 years, you can imagine that I’m sensitive to the issue.”

Pryor lives in West Orange, N.J. with his wife and two daughters. He received his MFA in painting from Temple’s Tyler School of Art. He’s spent the bulk of his professional life in the New York metro area.

That said, there is a strong structural similarity between nonprofits, no matter where they’re located. Harlem School of the Arts — a community arts center that holds classes for between 4,000 and 5,000 children (preschool through high school) annually in the performing and visual arts — is not as big or complex as PAFA, which has far fewer students.

But PAFA and HSA have more in common than not, Pryor said. PAFA has about 185 students enrolled in its degree-granting programs.

“Fund-raising is a major part of the portfolio of any executive leader at a nonprofit,” said Pryor. “That’s not very different in an organization like PAFA or HSA. The scale would be different because the scale of the institutions is different, but the core of donor relationships, and making certain that we’re messaging what’s going on in the institutions and trying to find people who believe in that mission and are willing to support it — that’s not very different.”

He declined to comment on controversies, which overtook PAFA in recent years. In one instance, several faculty members signed a petition in support of Black Lives Matter, identifying their institutional affiliation. PAFA administrators said this violated PAFA policy. The incident escalated, and students and alumni eventually called for Brigham’s ouster.

“I am not aware of these specific incidents in any type of detail that would make me comfortable with commenting on them,” Pryor said. “But what I do understand is that, whether it’s here, or Harlem School of the Arts, or other places that I’ve been, transparency is critical. I think as a leader my leadership style is I like being very accessible.”

Pryor sees his role as “being the face of the institution and being an individual that’s really messaging what’s happening, where we’re going, our institutional priorities.”

He also emphasized that he wants to make himself accessible to all parts of the community. “An important part of my leadership style is to really make certain that I’m connected to folks — whether it’s the students at PAFA, whether the faculty, staff, our community members,” he said.

“As president, my role is not to be a hands-on content person, you know, I do know content. I’m comfortable in that space. But they’re a very capable teaching faculty, curators, and others who will drive the content.”

McCollum said Pryor has a simple charge: “His charge is really to reimagine the future.”

What does that mean?

“It could mean expanded online learning on a variety of different platforms in addition to the continuing education program that we already have,” she said. “This is a 216-year-old institution. It’s gone through so many chapters and iterations of itself. And now we need to think about what the next chapter is. How do we stay relevant to the community in Philadelphia, nationally, internationally. It’s a learning process and I think Eric will be an excellent guide through that process.”