Independent Lens: Herb & Dorothy

Tue, 10/13/2009 - 10:00pm

Photo: Herb and Dorothy visiting their honeymoon spot, the National Gallery of Art, West Building, in Washington, DC..

Credit: Fine Line Media 

A keen eye for art leads one ordinary couple to amass one of the most important contemporary art collections in history.

Do you have to be a Medici or a Rockefeller to collect art? Not according to Herb and Dorothy Vogel. As the series opener for the 2009/2010 season of PBS’s acclaimed Independent Lens, Megumi Sasaki’s delightful documentary Herb & Dorothy tells the extraordinary story of Herb, a high school dropout and postal clerk, and Dorothy, a librarian. Living in a humble, one-bedroom New York apartment, this seemingly ordinary couple turned out to have a keen eye and all-consuming passion for modern art that led them to amass one of the most important contemporary art collections in history. Herb & Dorothy airs Tuesday, October 13 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable1011/cable11).

In the early 1960s, when very little attention was being paid to Minimalist and Conceptual Art, Herb and Dorothy quietly began purchasing the works of unknown artists. Devoting all of Herb’s salary to buying art, and living solely on Dorothy’s paycheck, they collected art guided by only two rules: the piece had to be affordable and small enough to fit in their cramped apartment. Within these limitations, they proved themselves to be curatorial visionaries; most of the artists they supported and befriended went on to become world-renowned. But they did more than just purchase art: they became major fixtures on the New York art scene, spending every evening at gallery openings and museum shows and becoming close friends with many of the artists they admired. Their circle of intimates includes Sol LeWitt, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Lucio Pozzi, Lawrence Weiner and many others who are featured in the film.

By the early 1990s, the Vogels had managed to accumulate over 4,000 pieces, filling every corner of their living space from the bathroom to the kitchen, floor to ceiling. “Not even a toothpick could be squeezed into the apartment,” recalls Dorothy. The place was bursting at the seams and something had to be done.

The Vogels soon made headlines that shocked the art world: their entire collection was moved to the National Gallery of Art, the vast majority of it as an outright gift to the institution. Many of the works they had acquired at modest prices had appreciated so significantly that their collection became worth several million dollars—yet the Vogels never sold a single piece of the collection.

Today, still in love with each other and with art, Herb and Dorothy live in the same apartment, with their pet turtles, fish, and cat. The once completely emptied space is again filled with piles of artworks.

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