Olga Hirshhorn: Curator Knows Artistic Value Is More Than Price

By MAX HART

The woman with an eye for Rodins, Picassos, de Koonings and O'Keeffes also, as it turns out, likes Zitos.

"Oh, that is very nice," she says, surveying a weathered oil painting of surf crashing into cliffs. It is out of a stack of framed paintings piled on a workbench in the Thrift Shop on Lagoon Pond Road in Vineyard Haven. Speckled with dots of what looks like dried ketchup, it has a slightly greasy sheen, as though it hung over the stove in a cramped kitchen. Despite the imperfections, its admirer is impressed.

"Look at this, who painted this?" she asks, before finding the name in the lower right corner. The signature simply reads Zito.

"Zito?" she says with a smile, drawing a blank. "Isn't this a charming painting?"

The casual art collector would agree. But this diminutive lady rustling through the dusty work in her yellow and white dress with matching sandals is no casual collector. Zito has momentarily captivated Olga Hirshhorn, the grand dame of art collecting and namesake of one the most renowned art galleries in the world.

"I love going through these, because you never know what you will find," Mrs. Hirshhorn says with a laugh and added emphasis on "what." "You dig around and find all these little goodies."

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It is Wednesday morning, and Mrs. Hirshhorn is busy preparing to again host this year's Chicken Alley Art and Collectibles sale at the Thrift Shop on Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m. Now in its fifth year, the Chicken Alley art show is undoubtedly the most unusual art opening on the Vineyard during the summer, displaying paintings, jewelry and artifacts that have been donated to the shop over the last year. Instead of showing off works of artists with names like Ellis, Bramhall, Whiting or Murphy, the Chicken Alley sale shows off - well, less recognizable names.

"Nobody knows what you will find," Mrs. Hirshhorn says. "That is what is so fun about it."

This coming from a woman who has devoted her life to the appreciation and preservation of art. Mrs. Hirshhorn is the widow of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, a businessman whose exquisite and extensive art collection was the inspiration for the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. Avid collectors of modern and contemporary art throughout the 1950s, the Hirshhorns' collection included some of the most famous artists of the 20th century, including Picasso, whom the couple knew and socialized with. The collection is widely considered one of the most important in the world.

On Sunday, the only Picasso for sale will be a framed $20 print someone donated to the store, which is exactly the point.

"It's a fun thing, and the reason I did it was because I wanted people to know what a truly wonderful place this is, and how they can find really neat things here," she says of the thrift store. "You can really furnish your home with stuff from this place, and we don't price these to be beyond the pocketbooks of the people of the Island."

And that means deals are to be had. She recalls several rare Salvador Dali prints and a signed David Hockney print that have come through in years past, along with a wide variety of original paintings from lesser known but talented artists. Sometimes, Island artists will donate an original work to the show.

For Mrs. Hirshhorn, though, the real fun is in the treasures that are to be found.

"There are old oars, pulleys, fishing poles and plenty of kitchen objects," she says. "There is even a harpoon! And you can present them all as art objects. That's what's so wonderful about the thrift store. You can make art."

She also recalls an ice cutter someone bought several years ago - as a piece of art.

The origins of the Chicken Alley Art and Collectibles sale date to five years ago, when she came up with the idea while dropping off a load of clothes at the thrift store, an annual rite of spring.

"When I arrive from Washington for the summer, it takes me a week to get settled," says Mrs. Hirshhorn, who lives in her Franklin street home through the summer. "And I always go down to the thrift store with a bag of stuff and, of course, I always come back with a bag of stuff. But that year I found this oil painting of a seascape that I paid $15 for and, oh, did I love it. So I went to Dolly [Campbell, one of the store's managers] and said, ‘Why don't we have a spoof of an art opening on a Sunday afternoon?' Well, we only had a month and a half to prepare for it, but we still made $3,000."

The two-hour event was so successful, she said, people immediately began asking about next year, and soon the store was collecting art from every direction. To keep up, managers stored the pieces - which ranged from paintings to sculptures to antique plastic masks of Christmas angels - wherever they could. Some stayed in the store's back room, while other pieces moved off-site to barns and storage facilities.

"We started something we now can't stop," store manager Sandy Pratt says on Wednesday morning, surrounded by a sea of canvas and framing. "This is not even half of it."

Mrs. Hirshhorn's enthusiasm for the event is a reflection of her zest for life. Time and age certainly have not slowed her down; at 86 she exhibits the same spunk that compelled her to learn - at age 64 - to ski. She loves to fish and still collects art from all over the world.

Mrs. Hirshhorn first came to the Vineyard in 1988 when she rented a cottage off Lambert's Cove for the summer, and she knew immediately that she wanted to come back.

"I told the realtor I was working with that I didn't want to drive down some long, fashionable Island dirt road," she says with a laugh. "I said I wanted to be in Vineyard Haven within walking distance of the town. Well, this was available and it was perfect."

The house needed work, and she ultimately bought the old falling down barn next door to be converted into a guest house.

These days, both houses are home to her ever growing and impressive collection of art, from Cuban and Haitian paintings to sculptures of all shapes and sizes.

"But some of my favorite things at my home I bought here," she says, her eyes lighting up. As proof, she lists the old sled, oxen yoke and plow that sit in her yard. An antique pair of clip-on ice skates and roller skates are attached to her wall as well.

"All these treasures, they are all around us," she adds with a laugh. "That's what makes the Vineyard so wonderful."