Herb and Dorothy Vogel, art collectors extraordinaire, at home

The April 2009 issue of Modern Painters magazine has an interview by Christopher Turner with documentarist Megumi Sasaki about her new film, Herb and Dorothy. The story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel is so outrageous and runs so against the grain of everything I have known about art collecting, I cannot stop thinking about these two individuals and what they achieved.

The whole story reads like a fairy tale.

Here is Sasaki’s description of her film:

Do you have to be a Medici or a Rockefeller to collect art?

Not according to Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. This documentary film tells the extraordinary story of Herb, a postal clerk, and Dorothy, a librarian – an ordinary couple of modest means who managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history.

In the early 1960s, when very little attention was paid to Minimalist and Conceptual Art, Herb and Dorothy quietly began purchasing the works of unknown artists. Devoting all of Herb’s salary to buy art, and living on Dorothy’s paycheck alone, they continued collecting artworks guided by two rules: the piece had to be affordable, and small enough to fit in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Within these limitations, they proved themselves curatorial visionaries; most of those they supported and befriended went on to become world-renowned artists. Their circle includes: Sol LeWitt, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Lucio Pozzi and Lawrence Weiner.

Thirty years on, the Vogels had managed to accumulate over 4,000 pieces, filling every corner of their living space from the bathroom to the kitchen. “Not even a toothpick could be squeezed into the apartment,” recalls Dorothy. Their apartment was near collapse, holding way over its limit – something had to be done.

In 1992, the Vogels made headlines that shocked the art world: their entire collection was moved to the National Gallery of Art, the vast majority of it as an outright gift to the institution. Many of the works they acquired at modest prices appreciated so significantly that their collection became worth several million dollars, yet the Vogels never sold a single piece to breakdown the collection.

Herb and Dorothy still live in the same apartment today- with 19 turtles, lots of fish, one cat -once completely emptied, now refilled again with piles of artworks.

The Vogels’ discerning taste and magnanimity changed the face of contemporary art collecting. In 20 James Stourton, the chairman of Sotheby’s UK, included the Vogels in his acclaimed book, Great Collectors of Our Time: Art Collecting Since 1945. Stourton placed Herb and Dorothy among the top art collectors in the world, alongside Getty, Rockefeller and Mellon.

While there are countless films that feature artists, there are few about art collectors. Herb and Dorothy provides a unique chronicle of the world of contemporary art from two unlikely collectors, whose shared passion and discipline defies stereotypes and redefines what it means to be a patron of the arts.

In Turner’s interview, Sasaki shares an insight she came to while making the film that is also very memorable:

Six months into production, I did the first on-camera interview with Herb and Dorothy and asked them, “Why did you like this artists or that art work?” They just replied, “because it’s beautiful” or “because we like them.” I thought, Oh, my god, how can I make a film about art collectors who can’t articulate anything about their collection? Then I met Lucio Pozzi, the first artists we interviewed for the film and told him about the difficulties I was having; his response was, “That why Herb and Dorothy are so unique and special. Why do you have to verbalize and explain visual art? Why can’t you simply say I like it or I don’t like it?” Art is not something you have to explain, but feel. That’s the great lesson I learned from Herb and Dorothy.

I am completely enchanted. God bless you both, Herb and Dorothy. And while I have you, can I ask if there is any way to clone the likes of you?

Viewings of the film at festivals and in theaters are listed here.

Herb and Dorothy at the Gates in Central Park