William Matthew Prior (American, 1806-73), Mrs. Nancy Lawson, 1843. Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 25 in. Museum purchase, acquired from Maxim Karolik. 1959-265.34.

A Moment of Reckoning: An Open Letter from Director Thomas Denenberg

Dear Friends,

I have a favorite pair of paintings at Shelburne Museum, the 1843 portraits of Nancy and William Lawson by William Matthew Prior.  I admire them for their historical significance, a middle-class couple of African descent, black Bostonians engaged in the maritime economy of their city.  The artist’s signature, however, rivets me.  Two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, William Matthew Prior boldly signed his name to the front of the paintings, declaring himself forever allied with the sitters.  Let us all be so brave.

Like so many Americans, I went to sleep last night outraged at the murder of another man.  Yet another man.  A black man.  I woke up this morning to find the country in flames, a literal symbol of the catastrophic failure of our leaders and institutions to address a 400-year legacy of racism in this country.

“Justice,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”  We are long past the moment of wishing the question of race in America would answer itself, go away over time.  This is a moment of reckoning.  As I write this, our country is in the grip of a fearful pandemic, a virus that has stripped bare the inequities of our society with the clinical precision of cold demographics.

It is easy to turn away, pretend that the issue is not at hand in Vermont, but this cause is ours just as it belongs to Minneapolis, New York, Washington, and myriad other communities from coast to coast.  Our lack of diversity does not give us a pass.  Being black in America should not be a pre-existing condition in the year 2020.

Museums are trusted places in our society.  We exist to foster community by engaging audiences in meaningful and contextual conversation about creativity and the human condition, past and present.  It is naive to view ourselves as outside of the society we serve, and wrong to stand apart.  To be part of our community, our country, we must speak out against racism, injustice, and discrimination.  Like William Matthew Prior, we must be willing to sign our names, to condemn the violence of recent days and the inherent inequities of our history and contemporary life.   We must be allies on the road to a better future.

Very sincerely,


Thomas Denenberg



William Matthew Prior (American, 1806-73), Mrs. Nancy Lawson, 1843. Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 25 in.
William Matthew Prior (American, 1806-73), William Lawson, 1843. Oil on canvas, 30 ¼ x 25 ¼ in. `