In 2008, with the release of the documentary Herb & Dorothy, postal worker Herbert Vogel and his wife, librarian Dorothy Vogel, became art-world celebrities. Over several decades, this couple of very modest means managed accumulate one of the world’s most important contemporary-art collections, with 4,000-plus works by artists like Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt and Christo stored in their one-bedroom New York City apartment. On February 20, a new chapter of their story unfolds with a special excerpt screening in Toronto of a follow-up documentary, HERB & DOROTHY 50X50. The new doc looks at how the couple went on to distribute 50 works to an art institution in each of America’s 50 states. In this interview, Dorothy Vogel discusses her husband’s legacy, artist criticisms, and her best advice for collecting newbies.
Leah Sandals: This is the second documentary on you and Herb and your collecting activity. What new things did you learn from making this film, or from watching it?
Dorothy Vogel: I’ve only seen the full documentary once so far. My husband died in July, so when I saw the film, I think I cried the whole way through. I really can’t comment about on the film itself. I just miss my husband.
LS: I can’t imagine how hard that loss must be to deal with. This collection really was a collaboration between the two of you. I wonder, if you had never met each other, would this collection exist?
DV: Oh no, it was about the two of us.
When Herb died, I stopped collecting cold turkey. I told everyone I’m not collecting anymore, because the collection was run by both of us and I don’t want to water it down or affect it in any way.
It was a collaboration between the two of us, and when he died, the collecting was over.
LS: I also wondered how the collaboration worked. You had a day job as a librarian, so I guessed that you may have been responsible for a lot of the archiving and documentation. Am I right?
DV: Yes, I did do a lot of the cataloguing and the archives! But I also was a big participant in buying the art itself. That was the two of us together.
However, we didn’t buy every single thing together. He bought things without me and I bought things without him, and he had things before I even met him. So it wasn’t like we bought every single thing together—I don’t want to give that impression either.
One thing we did do a lot together was visit studios and galleries and meet a lot of people, go to a lot of events—and certainly, yes, buy works together.
I think we did a good job, and now it’s time to do something else.
LS: In the first documentary, I was really aware of how famous some of the artists in your collection were. But in this second documentary, I felt more aware that many of the artists you collected are much less known. What do you think brings one artist fame as opposed to another?
DV: Most of the artists we collected were unknowns when we collected them. It was very nice when some did become known—we were happy for them. But we collected other unknown artists at the same time, and we still loved their work.
It seems like a lot of recognition can be very temporary. An artist can be known for a few years, and then face obscurity. If you look at an Artnews from 15 years ago or 10 years ago, you will see lots of artists you never heard of again. I think part of the issue is that there is so much turnover, and very few artists have a long staying power.
LS: Some of the artists in your collection were not happy about the 50×50 project and the fact that the collection was going to be split up. How did you deal with that?
DV: Well, there only were two artists who were critical. One came completely around; the other, I’m not sure.
I know at one time our mission was to keep the collection together as much as possible, but when the collection became so huge, it became impossible to realize the dream. So we adjusted what we wanted to accommodate other options.
I guess some of the artists who knew about our original goal were disappointed, but there were only 2 that didn’t like the idea. I’d say 99.9 per cent of the artists involved were happy with it, because we got their works into lots of museums.
Of course, I was upset about the criticism, but I couldn’t stop just because of that. We had to go on and we had to do what we had to do. It was our collection, and it was our decision what to do with it what we wanted. We always saw ourselves as guardians of the work, and wanted it to go to an institution—or as it turns out, institutions.
LS: Both you and Herb started out as artists yourselves. Can you talk about how the transition to collecting took place?
DV: Herb took courses in art history and in painting at NYU, and soon after we married, I started taking drawing and painting courses at NYU as well; I wanted to be an artist too.
So both of us were painting, and we had a studio. At first, all of the works on our walls were our own. Then we started taking them down and replacing them with the work of other artists.
At some point, we realized that other artists were doing much better work than we were, and that we were running out of space. If we continued painting, we wouldn’t have built what we have today.
I have two of Herb’s paintings hanging my apartment right now, and the National Gallery is taking some into their archive as well. I might find another home for the rest of them; we’ll see.
LS: You mentioned earlier in our conversation that the time for collecting is over now, and there are other things to do. What are those other things?
DV: Well, at this age, just living takes up a lot of time. As you grow older, you don’t have the energy to do what you used to do.
But I’ve begun to go to more museums now. Even though I don’t intend to collect, I’m still interested in art. I saw “Inventing Abstraction” at MoMA a few weeks ago and I saw the Matisse show at the Met and “Picasso: Black and White” at the Guggenheim. I’ve seen more shows in the past one or two months than I did the previous 2 or 3 years, because my husband just could not travel with his illness.
Really, my full-time job is trying to sort through 50 years of stuff in the apartment, and get some new furniture in there. But it’s going very slowly.
And I have a few trips planned. Of course, I have am going to Toronto next week for the special excerpt screening, and then I’m going to Los Angeles a few weeks later to see the 50×50 exhibition at the MOCA there. Then, in March, I’m going to Japan with the filmmaker Megumi Sasaki for the film’s opening in Tokyo.
One thing I don’t do is subscribe to a lot of magazines. I really don’t like to read about art. I like to look at it. But I don’t like to read about it as much.
LS: I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a lot, but I have to ask, since you and Herb were so successful as collectors: What is your advice for others who want to collect art?
DV: To buy what you like. I think you have to do what you want to do, and what you are comfortable with. It’s good to get other people’s opinions and advice, but in the end, you should make up your own mind.
The special excerpt screening of HERB & DOROTHY 50X50 takes place at the Reel Artists Film Festival Opening Night Screening & Celebration on February 20 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The evening will include a conversation between Dorothy Vogel, filmmaker Megumi Sasaki, and collector Bill Clarke. Select tickets are still available at canadianart.ca/raff/tickets.
This interview has been edited and condensed.