Olga Hirshhorn, art collector, fisherman, dead at 95

Olga Hirshhorn. – MVTimes file photo by Ralph Stewart

Art collector and iconoclast Olga Hirshhorn, wife of the late Joseph Hirshhorn of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., died on Saturday, Oct. 3 at her home in Naples, Fla. She was 95.

Olga spent her last years in the Florida home she loved, a place she designed herself for her last days. She was a person of great imagination and boundless energy, a force of nature that affected all who knew her. Born to hard-working immigrants Nicholas and Barbara Zatorsky, her early life was a reflection of the compassionate yet competitive spirit that characterized her later life.

A serious athlete, she was a tennis player in Greenwich High School, from which she graduated in 1939, and years later, at an age when most people were giving up sports, she still played competitively. In her junior year in high school, she won the mile-and-a-half swim to Greenwich, Conn.’s Island Beach. The next year, school officials insisted that everybody else needed a head start to make it fair, but Olga won anyway. At age 85 she continued her athletic pursuits with a trip to Antarctica.

Olga Hirshhorn was an extraordinary people person and communicator. “Hi,” she would say, “I’m Olga Hirshhorn,” and then on she would go to promote a favorite cause or artist. She was a world traveler, and counted as her personal friends Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, yet she was without pretensions.

In 1939, she married John Cunningham, her high school English teacher, and she had three sons, John, Denis, and Graham Cunningham. They started Services Unlimited, an employment agency.

After they divorced, she met the art collector and businessman Joseph Hirshhorn through Services Unlimited. A few years later, in 1964, they were married.

Olga Hirshhorn was 5 feet, 2 inches tall, and so was Joe. It was a good match. Joe Hirshhorn openly admired not only her energy but her boundless imagination; “her mind kept me awake at night,” he used to joke. Olga was an inseparable partner for Joe as he assembled one of the largest private collections of sculpture and painting in the world. In 1966, an Act of Congress created the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, regarded as one of the most significant collections of art in the world. Joseph Hirshhorn died in 1981.

Olga Hirshhorn’s involvement in art continued unabated after Joe died. She served not only on the board of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, but also on the boards of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Baker Museum in Florida. She received numerous awards, and she was a lecturer and a speaker at events throughout the world. Her personal collection of more than 200 small works from Mouse House, her tiny home in Washington, D.C., traveled all over the country, with exhibitions at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, among other places. The Mouse House collection included small works of Daumier, Man Ray, Alexander Calder, Salvatore Dali, and numerous other artists. It finally found a permanent home in the Baker Museum in Naples.

To the end, Olga Hirshhorn never lost sight of her humble beginnings, or her way with people, or her very special sense of humor. A lightning bolt shot across her home on Martha’s Vineyard, and everybody knew her license plate, “Mices.” Her third marriage, to Robert Whittier Dudley of Washington, D.C., in 1985 ended tragically a year later when he was stricken with cancer.

Olga Hirshhorn spent her last years actively engaged as a philanthropist and a vigorous supporter of the arts and many other noteworthy causes. She divided her time between her homes on Martha’s Vineyard, in Washington D.C., and in Naples, Fla., where she was a ubiquitous presence at art and community activities.

The creative and artistic culture of Martha’s Vineyard held a special place in her heart, and she will be sorely missed at “Chicken Alley,” the Vineyard Haven benefit art sale she organized, and the Art Buchwald Possible Dreams Auction, where she loved to bid on fishing trips, all for a good cause, with her good friend and local fishing guide and tackle shop owner Cooper Gilkes.

There are people who like to fish, and there are fishermen. The difference is the gulf that separates affection and passion. Olga loved to compete in the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Wearing her Derby cap and button she found it a great treat to carry a fish into the weigh station and listen to the admiring comments from fellow fishermen. 

Her sister Stephanie, her brother Nicholas, and her son Graham predeceased her. She is survived by John and his wife Belinda, Denis and his wife Linda, her grandchildren John, Sarah, Graham, Jessica, and Joseph, and one great-grandchild, Finn.

A memorial service will be held at Temple Sholom in Greenwich, Conn., at 10 am, Wednesday, Oct. 7. Burial will be in the Temple Sholom Cemetery at Memory Lane in Greenwich, Conn. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Olga’s memory to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., or to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

A memorial service will be held next summer on Martha’s Vineyard.