Originally published in the Marina Times San Francisco in November 2013
What we did then is now art history —Herbert Vogel
In 2008, film director Megumi Sasaki released the film “Herb and Dorothy”, a story of two unlikely art collectors. Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, a postal employee and librarian respectively, accumulated what is considered to be one of the most important collections of minimalist and conceptual art in the United States. Despite their modest means, the couple amassed thousands of works by artists including Richard Tuttle, Christo, Nam Jun Paik and Sol LeWitt—artwork that lived with them on the walls, under the bed, in closets or anywhere it would fit in the Vogel’s one bedroom New York City apartment.
The Vogels loved art and befriended many of the artists whose work they collected. The rules were simple: they had to like the art, and it had to be small enough to fit in a cab and carry back to their apartment. Sometimes they paid on installment plans. Both explored painting as a hobby early in their marriage and were self-educated in art history, but what remains is their incredible collective vision for art that would remain relevant.
The sequel is now in theaters. “Herb and Dorothy 50×50” presents the final chapter in the story of the couple’s art collection, which was donated in its entirety to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The Vogels were never concerned with the millions of dollars that could have been theirs had they sold their collection. Instead, since they worked their entire lives as civil servants, they believed their art belonged to the public.
In collaboration with National Gallery curator Ruth Fine, the 50×50 project was born. Since the NGA could not contain the entire collection, fifty works from the Vogel collection were donated to galleries in fifty states. The film shows the impact the artworks continue to have on the public. Across the country, visitors receive an education with no small amount of head-scratching. The Vogel’s contemporary collection has been called challenging, avant garde and inaccessible, yet many great adventures begin with the question “Why is it art?” The work provokes, educates and inspires a journey of discovery. It also helped breathe new life into galleries and museums struggling in a market where private collectors often have more liquidity than public institutions to purchase art at auction.
The Vogels collected abstract art in an era when its value wasn’t wholly understood. Herbert Vogel died in July of 2012, and Dorothy announced that their collection is now closed. Art collecting was something they did together, and though that chapter has ended, “Herb and Dorothy 50×50” documents the final destinations of the Vogel’s collection and their astonishing, unique and sometimes moving story of generosity.