Guided by their hearts and intuition, one of the most remarkable and unique American art collections was amassed by Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, who are New York-based, retired civil servants of modest means. Herb Vogel, who was born in 1922, worked for the United States Postal Service his entire adult life, while his wife Dorothy Vogel, born in 1935, was a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Married in 1962, they both took painting and art history classes at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts early in their marriage in the hope of being artists themselves. Herb even took Dorothy to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. for their honeymoon and for her first art history lesson. However, their love of art soon turned to collecting it rather than creating their own. After 50 years of marriage, they have amassed over 4,782 contemporary artworks from primarily minimalist and conceptual artists, like Sol LeWitt, Lynda Benglis, Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman.


Herbert & Dorothy Vogel Packing

The Vogels offer a wonderful alternative to the misconception that collecting art is an activity only for the wealthy. They lived on Dorothy’s income as a librarian in a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment, while using Herb’s income to purchase the art they loved. Their only rules in collecting were that the art pieces had to be affordable and fit into their tiny home.

To build their collection, the couple made long-term payment plans and bought directly from the mostly New York-based artists they admired, many of whom were unknown. With luck and good aesthetic eyes, many of the artists they purchased from became well known and valuable. Yet the couple has never sold any of the art they collected, and such was their passion that they removed their sofa and non-essential furniture in order to cram more work into their tiny apartment. The artworks were their children, and when the Vogels liked a particular artist, they bought as much as they could.

Many of the works they collected were drawings, some of which were plans for larger works or early ideas for conceptual pieces. These intimate artworks and the fact that the Vogels collected so much of one artist allows viewers to see the developmental progression of artists such as Robert Mangold and Sol LeWitt. 

 

In 1991, the Vogels donated their enormous collection to the National Gallery of Art, as a gift and a partial purchase. At the time, their collection stood at approximately 2,500 works, but soon doubled in 20 years. When asked its value, the NGA's curator, Jack Cowart, described it as "priceless." With the help of the museum, the National Endowment of the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the couple launched, The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States, to distribute 2,500 artworks to art institutions in all 50 states.

Animal lovers, with many cats, fish and turtles, the Vogels never set out to collect art like wealthy patrons. They bought with passion and chose carefully, often looking at everything each artist had in their studios. Herb and Dorothy became close friends with many of the artists and went to art exhibitions and artist studios nearly every day, to educate themselves further in contemporary art.

With eyes more like curators, the couple eventually exhibited parts of their collection with two shows,Selections from the Collection of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, at Manhattan’s Clocktower Gallery (April–May 1975) and Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture of the 60s and the 70s from the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection, which opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (October 7–November 18, 1975).

In 2008, Japanese filmmaker Megumi Sasaki, drawn to the couple’s extraordinary story, made the documentary Herb & Dorothy, which won many awards and accolades. While working with the Vogels, Megumi found that the couple “…doesn’t try to explain their art. They say that a certain work is 'beautiful' or that they 'like it', but they don’t try to interpret any of it… I realized that was what made them unique, and wonderful. Instead of speaking of the works in words, they really look at each piece. There’s such a sharpness in their eyes when they do so, and it’s times like those when I think they must be seeing things most of us cannot see.”

In honor of the Vogel’s 50th wedding anniversary in the fall 2012, Megumi is releasing the follow-up film Herb & Dorothy 50X50 to continue the art love story.

By Charong Chow