Sunday, November 6, 2011


Director & Producer: MEGUMI SASAKI


Run Time: 84 min.


 "That's why the Vogels are very special. Why should you explain art? What's the need to verbalize art? Herb and Dorothy only look, look and look. That's their way of communicating with art and artists."
 – Lucio Pozzi (first artist interviewed by filmmaker Megumi Sasaki)

He was a postal clerk.  She was a librarian.  They live (to date) in a rent-controlled apartment in New York.  They are, very likely, the greatest art patrons of the 20th century.  In 1992, Herb and Dorothy Vogel donated over 2,000 works of Minimalist and Conceptual Art to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  True to their belief that art belongs to everyone, they chose the Gallery primarily because it would ensure free access to anyone interested in viewing their collections. (The Gallery does not charge entrance fees and cannot sell any of its donations.)

At first glance, you would mistake Herb and Dorothy to be just another Jewish couple in New York living in a modest apartment with their cat, turtles and lots of fish.  But you would be wrong because this diminutive couple is anything but ordinary.  One would never even dream that this "ordinary" couple had amassed an invaluable collection of modern art worth millions and millions tucked away in every nook and cranny (and ceiling) of their humble abode. But that is precisely what they had done.

Herb and Dorothy got married in 1962 and worked out a plan to pursue their common interest in contemporary art.  They agreed to live frugally on Dorothy's salary from the New York Library while using his salary from the post office to buy art.  The criteria for acquiring a work was very simple: they had to like it, afford it and be able to transport it back on the subway or taxi.  They were in the right place and time to follow their heart.  Over the next few decades, they discovered and met several to-be prominent artists and acquired significant artworks.  While their apartment became overcrowded with works of significant value, they have yet to sell a single piece from their collection.

The documentary by Megumi Sasaki provides an intimate portrait of a couple that is very much in love with each other and art.  Herb had completed a couple of years of high school but, being a voracious reader, taught himself all about art.  Dorothy has a graduate degree and a keen interest in art.  The kind of art that they are interested in is somewhat difficult for most people to grasp.  Most of us are drawn to representational art such as depictions of landscapes, people, etc.  Their focus and interest lies in conceptual art where they seem to be drawn to shapes, color, texture or concepts.

By attending almost every gallery showing, opening and open house during the 60s, 70s and 80s, they not only collected a laudable collection of over 4000 pieces but also built a reputation and following amongst up and coming artists.  In a sense, if Herb and Dorothy picked up a piece from an artist, it was a validation of their creative abilities.  A key aspect of their collecting habit was that if an artist was out of their spending capacity, they simply admitted that and moved on to other emerging artists.  They even acquired some artwork by simply looking after an artist's cat while they were away! 

Over the years, it seems that they knew everyone in New York's art circle and everyone knew them.  The documentary features a veritable Who's Who of artists commending the passion and eye of the Vogels.  Among others, this includes Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Chuck Close, Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Lucio Pozzi and Lawrence Weiner.  Herb & Dorothy's loyalty to their passion is unwavering.  While many of the works they collected went on to being worth hundreds and millions of dollars, they never considered selling anything.  They love all the works (and artists) that they have collected and it brings them joy.  I suppose money could serve as a means to happiness but if you are already happy, it can only add complications.

The most important message from the remarkable life of the Vogels is accepting art for what it is.  It is not a commodity or an investment.  There is beauty expressed in several forms and the artistic value lies in its appreciation.  Art is not, and cannot be, limited to a select few.  One needs neither wealth or degrees to enjoy art.  Simply take the time to look... and look and look.  Follow your instinct and enjoy what appeals to you.  If you really enjoy the artwork, it will not matter whether the "value" of that piece appreciates or not.  Personally, I cannot claim to appreciate (or enjoy) all the works that the Vogels have collected.  But I also cannot explain why I enjoy everything by Bo Bartlett or Adam Vinson.

The Vogels were approached by several museums seeking their collection but they always declined.  They finally selected the National Gallery to donate their entire collection in 1992.  The museum pays them an annuity which the Vogels used to acquire more art rather than buy some furniture.  Since then, the collection has grown to over 4,000 pieces and the Gallery has acknowledged that the abundance of work is more than they can handle.  This has led to a national 50x50 gift project under which 50 works will be distributed to each of the 50 states.  One institute per state will carry the 50 works and will make it a part of their permanent collection.  More info is available at  The project will most likely be completed in 2012 (along with another documentary by Sasaki), the year in which the Vogels celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.  Quite fitting.