Priscilla Lawrence Announces Retirement from Historic New Orleans Collection

Priscilla Lawrence | photo from The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC)

NEW ORLEANS — Priscilla Lawrence, the longtime president and chief executive officer of The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), announced that she will retire at the end of June. Since joining THNOC in 1980 and assuming the role of president/CEO in 2000, she has steadfastly led the organization’s efforts to preserve and share the art and culture of the Greater New Orleans region, Louisiana, and even the Gulf South.

“My time at The Historic New Orleans Collection has been so much more than a job. It has been a central part of my life—even my identity—for nearly 40 years. I treasure every one of those years, especially the relationships forged and what we have accomplished together,” said Lawrence in a statement.

THNOC was founded in 1966 by General L. Kemper and Leila Hardie Moore Williams, who amassed a substantial collection of Louisiana artifacts that became the foundation of the institution’s holdings. After they passed away, the Kemper and Leila Williams Foundation was established, ensuring long-term financial support for THNOC, and a central, accessible location for their life’s work.

Lawrence has furthered the founders’ mission of making their collected materials available to the community.

Under her leadership, THNOC increased its physical space with the acquisition, restoration and renovation of several historic French Quarter properties to accommodate its future needs.

In April 2019, the newest star in THNOC’s crown, the Seignouret-Brulatour Building, opened to the public. A $38 million project, this exhibition center at 520 Royal St. contains 36,000 square feet of space, an expanded gift shop, a visitor center and a museum café. It complements the flagship location at 533 Royal Street and the Williams Research Center at 410 Chartres Street, and expands THNOC’s footprint in the French Quarter to 100,000 square feet.

“I have had the privilege of working side-by-side with Priscilla for many years,” said THNOC vice president and deputy director Daniel Hammer in a statement. “Her unwavering dedication and tireless commitment to excellence are inspiring and have truly led The Collection to prominence not only locally, but also nationally and even internationally. We will miss her tremendously.”

During Lawrence’s tenure with THNOC, the organization increased its staff to 130 and hired more than 60 volunteers to help run their programs and services in three primary areas: exhibitions, research and publishing.

A pivotal point in Lawrence’s career took place during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Intent on protecting historic objects, Lawrence and her team reached out to the Alexandria Museum of Art for assistance. In September 2005, just days after the storm, THNOC staff, with the help of Alexandria’s Sheriff’s Office and members of the Louisiana State Police, made two trips into a locked-down New Orleans. Manuscripts, library items and visual materials were securely transported for safekeeping to the Alexandria Museum of Art, where they remained until all municipal services were restored to THNOC’s buildings in New Orleans.

In October of 2005, THNOC became the first New Orleans area museum to reopen after the storm. Five months later, THNOC unveiled the city’s first major exhibition since the storm: “Common Routes: St. Domingue • Louisiana”. The showcase was garnered international support, and included loans from public and private collections in North America and Europe.

In August 2008, Priscilla led THNOC staff to host a New Orleans Antiques Forum – the first of its kind for the city. The annual event, which comprises the second largest antiques market in the country, attracts nationally renowned speakers and typically sells out as soon as registration opens.

In 2015, THNOC presented the city’s first exhibition exploring its legacy as the country’s largest slave market, “Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade, 1808–1865”, which attracted record attendance for the institution and furthered understanding of a painful chapter of local history. The exhibition received major grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, among other organizations, and recognition from the American Association for State and Local History. The full exhibition traveled to four sites and is currently on view at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

One of the most sought-after and respected community influencers, Lawrence has served on numerous boards and commissions throughout her career, most notably co-chairing last year’s Cultural and Historical Committee for the Tricentennial of the City of New Orleans with Sybil Morial. Together, Lawrence and Morial highlighted the diversity and complicated histories of the city’s past through a variety of tricentennial initiatives, including a four-day symposium and the launch of New Orleans slave trade markers.

Mark Romig, the president and chief executive officer of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, reminisced about his collaborations with Lawrence.

“Priscilla’s legacy was founded in the past but will live on in the future. She has forged a safe and bright tomorrow for the history of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. Because of her vision and capable hands, the story of New Orleans will be safe for years to come,” he said in a statement. “I am one of those blessed to have worked with and learned from her.”

Lawrence’s professional accomplishments have not gone unnoticed.

She has received the title of Chevalier in the Order of the Arts and Letters from the French Minister of Culture and Communication; and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities 2009 Award for Lifetime Contribution to the Humanities. She helped THNOC earn a 2008 Community Arts Award from the Arts Council of New Orleans; and the 2011 Attraction of the Year Award from the Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism; along with numerous accolades, grants, and honors for its architectural preservation efforts, published works, and exhibitions.

Vice president and deputy director Daniel Hammer will succeed Priscilla Lawrence as THNOC president and CEO effective July 1, 2019.

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