Surbhi Bharadwaj, Senior Photographer

When Kymberly Pinder GRD ’95 learned she had been appointed to lead the Yale School of Art, the moment was bittersweet. 

After two decades in academia at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, the University of New Mexico College of Fine Arts and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she would soon return to her alma mater not only to become the first person of color to head the School of Art but also the first woman of color to lead a graduate school at Yale. Her only regret was that her mother, one of her biggest role models, was not alive to see it happen. 

“One of the last things she said to me was that she knew that I was gonna get that job, and I did,” Pinder recalled. “I was excited to come back to Yale.”

To say that Kymberly Pinder’s life and career have been groundbreaking is a colossal understatement.

Pinder described her mother and father growing up poor, working hard to provide a life of relative ease for her and her siblings. She credits her parents with instilling in her a deep appreciation for education as well as hard work and determination — but never at the expense of her happiness. While Pinder spent her childhood at private schools, her father grew up an orphan and her mother ran away from home at age 14, not receiving her GED until she was almost 30.

“They actually never said to me, you have to get A’s or you have to be successful,” Pinder told the News. “It was really knowing how much they had sacrificed and how much they had gone through to get where they were. That always made me strive.”

Pinder always felt that if her mother or father had the same opportunity as she had, that “they would have done way more” than she had ever achieved.

And Pinder has achieved a lot. While studying at Middlebury College, she discovered her passion for art history, seeing works of art as windows into cultural moments in history and artists’ influences. That interest led her to get an M.Phil, M.A. and Ph.D., all through Yale’s History of Art department. After leaving the University, Pinder became a full professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she reached the positions of department chair and head of the graduate program. 

The transition from teacher to administrator came with ease for Pinder. She credited her time working at her family’s multiple businesses —  a “package store, dry cleaners, vending machines, deli and bar” — where she had to work over summers not allowed to have any other summer jobs, for equipping her with managerial skills.

After her time in Chicago, Pinder moved across the country to become dean of the University of New Mexico College of Fine Art, where she simultaneously served as director of its art museum. From there, the job offers poured in. 

“Once you’re in those jobs, people don’t usually know this, but then you get solicited all the time for those jobs,” Pinder explained. “That’s how the provost position came up at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.”

She once again found herself packing up and leaving for a new school, this time to become Provost of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, also known as MassArt. Pinder soon rose to the role of acting-president and then president of the school during the COVID-19 pandemic before arriving at Yale to become the University’s first Black woman dean. 

She arrived not only amidst a pandemic but also a national conversation around race and diversity, and she told the News she had a “great feeling” about her ability to lead the school during those tumultuous times. 

Pinder’s decision to leave MassArt did not come easily, however, and was motivated by more than just a desire to return to her alma mater. She said she was intrigued by the position because the School of Art is the most diverse graduate school at Yale and was the first school to admit women in 1869. She added that she was most attracted to the idea of creating changes that could serve as a model for other schools nationwide given the School of Art’s trailblazing history and status as a top-ranked art school. 

“Professor Pinder is widely known for her deep commitment to teaching, which is rooted in her belief that an education is key to social mobility and to finding solutions to local and national challenges,” University President Peter Salovey said in an email announcing Pinder’s appointment to the Yale community. “As she encourages students to pursue excellence and nurtures their artistic aspirations, she also teaches them to examine carefully every facet of society.”

But now, almost two years into her term as Dean, the changes she hoped to make may prove more difficult as the Supreme Court prepares to hear challenges to affirmative action in college admissions.

In addition to the ongoing threat to diversity in higher education from the Supreme Court, Pinder also worries about the financial accessibility of higher education and sees a society increasingly “beating up” on higher education with more Americans opting not to pursue post-secondary education. Despite these challenges, Pinder remains optimistic about the future of graduate programs and committed to her efforts to “rebrand higher education.”

“I have a somewhat contentious relationship with higher education. It hasn’t always been inclusive or I haven’t always felt comfortable, … but I stay in them to change them,” Pinder told the News. “We all need to … rally, whether we’re students or faculty or staff to stand up and defend higher education. Defend going and getting more education in your life; … it’s worth it.” 

Pinder envisions a future where people see higher education as more than an avenue toward crippling debt. As dean, she is working to eliminate financial barriers to education by making the MFA debt-free and pioneering other programs allowing students to pursue their dreams of becoming artists without worrying about cost. 

“Dr. Pinder’s experience as an academic and theorist — critically acclaimed for her writings around art and religion, history, and race, as well as her demonstrated excellence as a leader and administrator within peer graduate and undergraduate visual art programs — is exactly what the Yale School of Art needs as MFA programs across the nation address the necessary shift in the climate of future art education,” professor of art and former School of Art Dean Marta Kuzma said of her successor. 

When asked what advice she had for young Black artists today looking to make their start in the art world, she said to always be open to unexpected opportunities. Pinder’s unlikely story is the result of taking advantage of unexpected opportunities, and she remains committed to creating more of the opportunities available to her throughout her career for others that follow her. 

“It’s a good time to be a Black woman in these spaces,” Pinder told the News. “It’s never going to be perfect, but I think that people are going the extra mile to be supportive, and there are more people at the table who want to talk about issues around inclusivity as opposed to 10 or 15 years ago when I was the only person at the table. Now there are so many more allies.”

She emphasized trying new things and not limiting oneself for fear of failure because “you have regrets, that means you haven’t learned anything.” 

Pinder’s father, who was born in the segregationist South and fled to escape racial violence, reminds her of this every day. She wears his watch to never forget all that he endured to get where she is today and to keep her family’s history alive by carrying her parents’ values on to her own children.

“Always knowing your history is important, and it’s not just about my history or your history, ” Pinder said before leaving. “Everyone needs to know history so we can move forward.”

The Yale School of Art was founded in 1869. 

Michael Ndubisi is co-editor of the Yale Daily News’ Opinion desk and one of the News’ Diversity, Equity & Inclusion co-chairs. Michael was previously an opinion columnist for the News, contributor and managing editor of ‘Time, Change and the Yale Daily News: A History’ and an associate beat reporter covering student accessibility. Originally from Long Beach, California, he is a sophomore in Saybrook College majoring in Political Science.