Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Documentary: Herb and Dorothy

On Hulu I watched another terrific documentary. This one is of unassuming Herb and Dorothy, both civil servants living in NYC on less that $50,000 per year. Yet with their modest means they became New York's premier contemporary art collectors.

Living on her salary as a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library and using Herb's salary as a night postal clerk, they amassed almost 5,000 pieces of contemporary art, all crammed into their tiny 1-bedroom NYC apartment.

Toward the end of their lives, they donated their collection to the National Museum of Art in Washington DC, because (the museum keeps donated art forever and won't trade or sell it, and because they charge no admission.) Dorothy explained, 'we worked for the government all our lives, and we felt the art belonged to the American people, and the National Museum is a museum for the people.'

Just as important as the art were the relationships the pair cultivated with the artists. They befriended them, offered moral support and gave of their modest financial means. Patrons in the people's sense, they amassed friendships glued by their mutual love of art, especially the 'difficult' pieces that most art lovers don't understand nor enjoy.

Heteronomy Charles Clough Painting: enamel on linen
And as with the art and the relationships with the artists, the documentary also chronicles the couple's marriage. Dorothy said when the pair had been married for 45 years that she could count on one hand the number of times they had been apart. "We just really like to be with each other." They are charming and wonderful together and it is a joy to see a pair grow together through the years in mutual love and support.

Untitled Robert Barry Print: print on light blue glossed paper
Herb passed away at the age of 89 in 2012. Dorothy travels and attends theatre, but is extremely lonely for Herb. She no longer collects, but in addition to visiting the 1,000 pieces she and Herb had donated to the American Museum she also attends museum openings in all the other places she has donated their collected works.

The filmmaker followed up the original documentary Herb and Dorothy with a film called 50X50. The American Museum could only absorb 1000 of their pieces, so of the rest, the 50X50 project was born.  "The sheer size of the collection—far too large to be reasonably placed in any one institution—led to the development of The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States project, which enabled the Vogels to share the gift of their collection nationwide. This project has received essential support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services."

You can view all the institutions in each state which have so far accepted a Vogel donation here.

The New Yorker wrote a lovely article about Dorothy Vogel earlier this year, here. It begins this way

Dorothy and Herbert Vogel led the sort of life that sounds like a New York legend: two state employees, living on less than fifty thousand dollars a year, manage to amass a collection of more than four thousand works of contemporary art. It’s hard to believe such a feat would be economically possible, but the Vogels were early enthusiasts who collected what was at first unpopular—inaccessible minimalist and conceptual works—and would now be worth millions. Not everyone in their collection was widely known, but many were: Richard Tuttle, Sol LeWitt, Jeanne-Claude and Christo. The Vogels themselves were minor celebrities, known by art-world regulars around the city, and they were beloved: at a 1976 event to benefit P.S. 1, the founder, Alanna Heiss, threw a prom. There was a ballot for prom king and queen, and Herb and Dorothy won.

The documentary is on hulu but snagfilms has it here, free. Please take a look at a charming film.

Herb and Dorothy, 87 min

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