They did not plan to be rich or famous. After all, they both had long, quiet careers in the government. He was a postal worker without a high school diploma and she was a librarian for the New York Public Library with a graduate degree. But Herb had an insatiable passion for art and Dorothy slid right under his wing. Now, approximately 50 years after they met, the Vogels have amassed a vast and unique collection of American contemporary art, mostly minimalist, that has been donated to the National Gallery in Washington, DC. And they are still collecting.
How did they do it? They lived frugally in a rent controlled apartment in New York City where they still live today. There are probably more live pets (cats, fish and turtles) than pieces of furniture. When a guest arrives, a plastic folding chair is extended gracefully but it will not stay extended too long. Their apartment is small but packed, literally from floor to ceiling, with art. Having decided to live on one salary and purchase art with the other, every Saturday they went art shopping as others were doing their weekly food shopping.
They’re a diminutive unassuming couple. So in the 1960s, it was somewhat unusual to see them romping around SOHO visiting galleries, artists and undeveloped loft spaces. Many artists became happily accustomed to seeing Herb and Dorothy and looked forward to selling their art so they could pay their rent. The old adage “cash is king” worked. And at the end of the day, you could follow them on the subway or hailing a taxi carrying wrapped parcels of art back to their small apartment. And so they developed friendships with many of these artists and had an advantage as a buyer. Once they were even given preliminary drawings of the Christo and Jean Claude project Valley Curtain in exchange for watching the artist's cat while they were away. Sol Le Witt, Chuck Close, Richard Tuttle, Eva Hesse, Donald Judd and many others are in their 20th century collection and you can take a glimpse of some of their artist friends in this short video created by the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Herb is the negotiator and talker; Dorothy remains more quiet. He likes to study and analyze art, Dorothy prefers to intuit her decision and move on. He enjoys building breadth in a collection by an artist and she picks across the art spectrum. Despite their different styles, the Vogels still continue to buy, based on personal values of what they like, on their definition of “beauty” and ultimately what they want to own. Naturally they are also practical buyers; they have to be able to afford the art and it has to fit in their apartment. Not that they have income issues. Although they are both retired, they have anticipated benefits from their jobs as well as an annuity from The National Gallery of Art in appreciation of their donation. So their apartment was only temporarily void of art work after the Gallery packed it, and they have been avidly collecting again.
The documentary titled Herb and Dorothy was created by writer-director Megumi Sasaki who tells their story in a way that is personal and public, serious and funny, and totally engaging with scenes ranging from Dorothy’s shopping at the Apple store for a mac to the huge vans carrying their art to The National Gallery so 50 museums in 50 states can provide exhibitions of pieces in this collection. Enjoy the trailer
Sasaki says: "From the beginning, my intention was to make something other than a so-called "art film." I wanted to capture how these two ordinary people accomplished the extraordinary in the field of art collecting. The film is about the power of passion and love, and a celebration of life.
The story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel is unique not only because of their avant garde vision and discernment as collectors, but also their love and dedication. It is through their loving partnership that the viewer truly experiences this remarkable story.
The Vogels' message is also about access. Art is not limited to the elite few. You don't have to be wealthy or an art school graduate to enjoy art. If you are interested in collecting art, you don't have to follow trends or others' advice, just listen to your own voice. Trust your eyes and instinct. Simply take the time to look, look and look.
In today's world, where art is treated as another commodity and a work's investment value takes precedence over its artistic value, Herb and Dorothy offers us an important question: What is it to appreciate and collect art?
My fortunate encounter with these beautiful people has changed my view of, and appreciation for, art and life."