By Rita Ormsby
I first learned of Herb and Dorothy Vogel’s outstanding collection of minimalist and conceptual art when Mike Wallace interviewed them for “60 Minutes.” How often do a public librarian and postal clerk meet and fall in love in New York, honeymoon in Washington, visit the National Gallery of Art and decide to live on her salary and buy art with his? And manage to live by this decision for more than 30 years before giving their collection to the National Gallery of Art?
When the segment was rebroadcast several years later, I was working at the Brooklyn Public Library Business Library, the same library from which Dorothy had earlier retired. Although our paths never crossed, I heard she was an excellent librarian and a wonderful person. When I expressed amazement on how two people could live in Manhattan on a salary I was finding small for one in Brooklyn, my supervisor volunteered that the couple’s rent-controlled apartment and a social life full of invites from artists helped immensely. But, certainly there was more to their story.
So I was delighted that Megumi Saska’s 1-hour 27-minute documentary fills in the details. Herb worked nights sorting mail, slept about 4-5 hours, and then either attended art history classes at the Institute of Fine Art or read library books about art and artists. In the Village, at the Cedar bar, he listened to artists Mark Rothko and David Smith and others talk, but never asked a question. For years, no one at the post office knew of his interest in art and of the couple’s collection. He shared what he learned with Dorothy and they started painting.
Realizing their own talents were limited, they then decide to collect art.
They purchased were made directly from the artists, which the film notes gallery owners did not appreciate. But the artists did, or at least those in the film did.. Although world famous today, Christo and Jeanne-Claude recall that years ago, when they learned the couple was coming to their work, their reaction was “The Vogels are coming. We can pay the rent.” Later, they traded artwork for having the Vogels cat sit. Chuck Close remarks that the Vogels loved the most difficult pieces. The film doesn’t really explain their aesthetics in detail, but Dorothy says they bought what they liked, what they could afford, and what could fit into their apartment. They never sold any thing, and unlike other collectors, didn’t seem to view the art works as “investments.”
Eventually, their apartment, which they share with cats and turtles, held a collection that filled numerous moving vans in 1991 when the Vogels reached an agreement for a partial gift and purchase with the National Gallery of Art, thanks to the efforts of then 20th century curator Jack Cowart. Perhaps the ultimate in outsourcing of cataloging took place when former reference librarian Dorothy explains that since she lacked a computer, the National Gallery of Art cataloged the 4,000-plus piece collection. The now elderly couple visits the National Gallery several times a year, where their names are enshrined with those of more prominent donors. (Recently a program was announced to provide 2,500 works, 50 pieces each for museums of each of the 50 states. Details are available at http://www.nga.gov/press/2008/vogel50x50_a.shtm.) .
Will there be a sequel? Perhaps, as we learn that the Vogels have continued to collect and their apartment is once again very full. The couple chose a life style that few others would make. Dorothy says that they would like to encourage others living on small incomes to buy art. Film promotions include the message, “You don’t have to be a Rockefeller to collect art.” Although this is an enjoyable film to watch in a theatre, as an academic librarian, I would recommend that, when available, a DVD of Herb and Dorothy be added to collections of both public and academic libraries for it will help students and others realize that anyone can appreciate art and that “ordinary” people like the Vogels can collect art. Their determination that their collection go to a gallery that doesn’t charge admission also helps keep open the belief that art is for everyone. Of course, as a librarian, it was great to the role that libraries played in the Vogels’ collection, especially to see the art books coming off the shelves to be read.