The story of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, two civil servants who built a peerless collection of more than 4,000 small-scale works of art and stored them in their tiny Manhattan apartment, is one of the most irresistible tales to emerge from the art world in years.
Herbert Vogel, a former postal clerk who died last summer at 89, and his wife, a Brooklyn librarian, were the unlikeliest of collectors, constrained by budget and space but not by the scope of their ambition or imagination. During the heyday of their collecting career, from the 1970s through the ’90s, they would buy only affordable art that they could take home with them on the subway and that would fit in their cluttered, rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
They became unlikely art-world superstars when they donated their collection to the National Gallery of art in Washington in 1992. They’re now unlikely film stars, too, thanks to a smart, if occasionally unpolished, new documentary by Japanese filmmaker Megumi Sasaki about their remarkable legacy.
“Herb & Dorothy 50X50,” an update of Sasaki’s 2008 film about the Vogels’ unprecedented gift, follows the National Gallery’s monumental decision to distribute 50 works from the collectors’ massive trove to one art museum in each of the 50 states.
It opens Friday in the Dipson Amherst Theater. Following the 7:30 p.m. showing Friday, Sasaki and Albright-Knox Art Gallery Chief Curator Douglas Dreishpoon will answer questions about the film and the collection.
The National Gallery, knowing that it had nearly 5,000 pieces of artwork and would be able to exhibit only a small percentage, spearheaded a campaign to distribute the work to museums from the Honolulu Academy of Arts to the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. The result is that the Vogels’ legacy, which would have been concentrated in the nation’s capital and kept largely in storage, is now available to museumgoers in far-flung institutions large and small.
Sasaki’s documentary takes a straightforward approach, deftly filling in the background on the Vogels and their original gift with footage from the 2008 film and adding new material shot in art museums that benefited from the gift and vignettes on artists the couple embraced.
Those museums include the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the New York State museum chosen to receive 50 works from the collection. The artists include Buffalo’s Charles Clough, one of the pair’s favorite artists, whom we see touring the Albright-Knox exhibition of the Vogel collection and creating work in his studio.
Clough, whose career got off to a promising start after he co-founded Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center and moved to New York City but later hit a standstill, is held up as the exemplar of the Vogels’ commitment and generosity. Even when the art world abandoned or dismissed Clough’s art, the Vogels stuck by him and collected more than 600 of his works.
One of the most poignant moments in the film comes as the three of them are walking through the Albright-Knox and Dorothy Vogel turns to Clough simply to say, “We’re very proud of you.” Clough returns the compliment, and in that exchange we get a little glimpse into the personal relationships central to the Vogel collection.
“I think knowing the artist is certainly as important, and may be in some cases more important, than the work itself,” Herbert Vogel said at one point.
It’s refreshing to see a documentary about the art world that is not at its core about money or status, or even the process of making artwork, but about the human relationships essential to truly appreciating art.
In the end, Sasaki’s fine encapsulation of the Vogels’ contribution shows us that the benefits of art are meant not for some elite class of art connoisseurs – or even an elite museum such as the Albright-Knox – but for everyone.
herb & dorothy 50X50
Director: Megumi Sasaki
Running time: 87 minutes
The Lowdown: A look into the legacy of unlikely art collectors Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, whose immense collection found its way to 50 American museums.