He was a postal worker. She was a librarian. Modern art collecting meets frugality in Herb and Dorothy, a 2008 documentary about a retired couple based in New York who had proven that “you don’t have to be a Rockefeller to collect art.” Together they scrimped, saved and haggled with (then unknown) artists to collect over 4,000 pieces of art that later on became collectively worth millions of dollars.
I saw this documentary last year and instantly made a connection: they’re the Warren Buffetts of the contemporary art world — living simply since the 1960s (in a rented one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan) to be able to buy things that were undervalued and holding on to them — forever (they never sold a single piece). Even when the Vogels (as they are often referred to in the film) were granted an annuity by The National Gallery of Art for the temporary exhibit of their collection in the museum, they did not use the money for food and medicine (as the museum had hoped for) but rather for purchases of more artistic work by contemporary artists. How’s that for passion?
HERB & DOROTHY tells the extraordinary story of Herbert Vogel, a postal clerk, and Dorothy Vogel, a librarian, who managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history with very modest means. In the early 1960s, when very little attention was paid to Minimalist and Conceptual Art, Herb and Dorothy Vogel quietly began purchasing the works of unknown artists. Devoting all of Herb’s salary to purchase art they liked, and living on Dorothy’s paycheck alone, they continued collecting artworks guided by two rules: the piece had to be affordable, and it had to be 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 including Sol LeWitt, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Lucio Pozzi, and Lawrence Weiner.
After thirty years of meticulous collecting and buying, the Vogels managed to accumulate over 2,000 pieces, filling every corner of their tiny one bedroom apartment. “Not even a toothpick could be squeezed into the apartment,” recalls Dorothy. In 1992, the Vogels decided to move their entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The vast majority of their collection was given as a gift to the institution. Many of the works they acquired appreciated so significantly over the years that their collection today is worth millions of dollars. Still, the Vogels never sold a single piece. Today Herb and Dorothy still live in the same apartment in New York with 19 turtles, lots of fish, and one cat. They’ve refilled it with piles of new art they’ve acquired.
HERB & DOROTHY is directed by first time filmmaker Megumi Sasaki. The film received the Golden Starfish Award for the Best Documentary Film and Audience Award from the 2008 Hamptons International Film Festival. It has also received Audience Awards from the 2008 SILVERDOCS Film Festival and the 2009 Philadelphia Cinefest. Palm Springs International Film Festival named HERB & DOROTHY one of their “Best of Fest” films in 2009.
Herb and Dorothy teaches us a beautiful lesson: not-so-ideal circumstances are no match for passion.
The footage in the documentary’s ending credits is a bit of an easter egg (or so I think). It shows Herb and Dorothy going to an Apple Store, picking out a Mac and bringing it home. The ending of the ending credits? Dorothy checking out her brand new Mac, sitting in the same place where the Vogels have a new and growing art collection. A-ha.
Windows fans need not make a comment.