“What do you think of this, Olga?” asked a woman, holding out a black and white photograph. Olga Hirshhorn sat in a canvas director’s chair with her name written on the back in a small corner of the Community Services Thrift Shop during the Chicken Alley Art Show on Sunday. Mrs. Hirshhorn, well steeped in art after a life spent among friends with names such as Picasso, Dali, O’Keefe and deKooning, smiled over the crowded masses filling the art show she helped found.
In its 10th year, the Chicken Alley Art Show has become an institution, with a devoted following, including people who line up an hour before the sale opens, determined to find the pièce derésistance.
“Everything stays on the Island, that’s what’s so great about it,” Mrs. Hirshhorn said as eager customers brushed past each other searching for the next great treasure someone else had foolishly trashed. “In 25 years it’ll all be back here [in the thrift shop],” Mrs. Hirshhorn laughed.
Mrs. Hirshhorn, who owns two homes in Vineyard Haven, makes the Thrift Shop one of her first stops after arriving in June.
“I always came to the Thrift Shop with a bag of stuff, but I always went home with a bag of stuff,” she said on Friday afternoon as she recounted how the Chicken Alley Art Show got its start.
Eight years ago, Mrs. Hirshhorn — the widow of financier, philanthropist and art collector Joseph Hirshhorn, founding donor of the Hirshhorn Museum, part of the Smithsonian on the Mall in Washington, D.C. — came home with a painting of a Vineyard seascape that set her back only $15.
“People don’t realize the good stuff there is in the thrift shop, and the thing about the thrift shop is the fun of finding, the fun of searching. Often I’ll come in here with no intention to buy and almost always I’ll walk out with something I can’t live without,” she said
With her seascape hanging on her mantle, Mrs. Hirshhorn decided to approach the thrift shop about having a spoof of an art opening on a Sunday afternoon to get people to see the wonders hidden on its shelves.
“People were going home with these shopping bags full, very happy. It was a wonderful sight. I saw those Cronig’s shopping bags and I thought, ‘We finally did something good.’”
It has remained a success, with last year’s show bringing in about $50,000. This year, the tally as of Monday was $28,000 and rising, according to store manager Sandy Pratt, who noted that some items remain for sale. A thousand or more people attended, she estimated.
The show now takes most of the year to plan. Items are set aside in the fall and winter with an eye towards displaying them during the art show. Each year is different, but the items for sale range from paintings and other art objects, to books and home items. For the past few years the show has been curated by Inas Al-Soqi, a recent graduate of the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston.
“Everybody’s so happy, and they all get exactly what they want,” Mrs. Hirshhorn said of the art show.
Mrs. Hirshhorn, born Olga Zatorsky, is the youngest daughter of Ukrainian immigrants. “I was born in WASP-y Greenwich, Connecticut, and there wasn’t any Olga,” Mrs. Hirshhorn. “I always hated Olga. What do you do with a name like Olga? You can’t shorten it. I never had a nickname and it was so ‘old country.’”
Mrs. Hirshhorn had always assumed she was named after Princess Olga, the youngest Romanov daughter, who was executed alongside her family during the Russian Revolution. After visiting relatives in the Ukraine 15 years ago, she discovered she was named for a very different Olga, the one responsible for bringing Christianity to the Ukraine in 988 A.D., and her feelings towards the name changed. “When I got to Western Ukraine with my family, there were five Olgas sitting down for lunch and big statues of Olga all over the place,” she laughed.
Mrs. Hirshhorn’s love of thrift shops is lifelong. She frequented the Greenwich thrift shops when she was married to her first husband, a high school English teacher. “We didn’t have much money on a schoolteacher’s income, but we always had an interesting house because I was able to go to the thrift shop in Greenwich,” she said.
“The thrift shop in Greenwich was like an antiques shop. The wealthy families traveled and died and the kids had to dispose of their contents. A lot of it ended up in the thrift shop, so I always had the most wonderful houses.”
It was Mrs. Hirshhorn’s second husband, Joseph Hirshhorn, who introduced her to the art world in a big way.
“It was a great life. We lived in Greenwich and we had a house on the French Riviera,” Mrs. Hirshhorn said as she reeled off a list of artists she and her late husband had befriended.
“It was very exciting,” she said, “I learned a lot about art.”
Mr. Hirshhorn’s art collection formed the basis of the Hirshhorn Museum when it opened. After his death in 1981, the pieces in his collection which did not already hang there were donated to the museum. Mrs. Hirshhorn donated the majority of her collection to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, also in Washington, in 1995.
“Now I’m known for the thrift shop,” she laughed, adding that people stop her on the street to tell her how excited they are for the show. The time when going to the thrift shop was an embarrassment has passed, she said; now people brag about how little they paid for something.
“It’s amazing what taste is all about,” she said. “I think the people on the Island have good taste.”
The crowds that packed the Chicken Alley Art Show on Sunday would certainly agree with. Mrs Hirshhorn, who noted simply, “There’s a lot of good art.”