How to build a museum collection on a mailman’s salary
Collectors extraordinaire Dorothy and Herbert Vogel know how to make a little go a long way in the art world
Among the VIPs at Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) this year will be two long-time collectors who won’t be wearing Versace, partying all night, or be interested in buying the works of artists like Damien Hirst or Andreas Gursky. Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, a retired librarian and postal clerk respectively, have, since the 1960s, amassed one of the largest and most important collections of contemporary American art. And all on his salary alone.
The Vogels have nothing against fairs; it is just that, to them, these extravaganzas are a fairly recent phenomenon. Mrs Vogel (aged 73) and Mr Vogel (86) are in Miami “to see a lot of people and see a lot of art”, as well as attend a screening of “Herb and Dorothy”, a documentary film about the remarkable art collectors made by Megumi Sasaki. Not that the Vogels have stopped collecting. “We’ve never shopped at fairs, but we’ve looked,” says Mrs Vogel.
In their small apartment in Manhattan, the spaces free of art or art books are few and far between. In the kitchen are sculptures by Steve Keister along with works by Pat Steir and Richard Tuttle, for example. They made their most recent acquisition in August: drawings given by the US minimalist Robert Mangold—an old pal. The newest artists in their collection are James Siena, added in 2006, and Louise Fishman, in 2007.
As Mr Vogel isn’t very mobile nowadays, the pace of their collecting has slowed. They are also collecting less as the market has changed. “It’s more expensive across the board,” he says, with even young artists commanding high prices. It is also more international and, to them, less appealing. “I’m glad we were around when minimalism and conceptualism came about,” says Mrs Vogel. “I don’t like nasty things, grotesque things, things with teeth.
“I’m not saying they’re bad works, but we have to like it [to buy it],” she says. Hence the Vogels’ lack of interest in artists like Hirst and Gursky. Names such as Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin mean nothing to them. They do, however, like Thomas Struth, and they have bought drawings from Jeff Koons.
Mrs Vogel says that depth— they have many pieces by the likes of Sol LeWitt, Mangold, Tuttle, Robert Barry and Edda Renouf—is the strength of their collection. They made history in 1992 when they pledged their collection (then numbering about 2,000 paintings, sculptures and drawings, now double that) to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The gallery has added about a thousand of these pieces to its collection. It is distributing the rest in 50-item lots to an art museum in each US state. The project, “Fifty Works for Fifty States”, has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.
The Vogels say it would be hard for anyone now to do what they did. Over the years, as they visited galleries and museums, they made friends with artists such as Mangold, Steir and LeWitt. “Artists wanted to get into our collection,” says Mrs Vogel, which explains how they acquired many of the 4,000 works of art. “People treated us differently to beginners because we’d proven ourselves,” she says. Now, “the whole market is about money,” says Mr Vogel. “Art has become a commodity.” But Mrs Vogel believes that would-be followers could buy mid-career artists who are not recognised, perhaps someone without a gallery or someone whose gallery has closed.
The Vogels say they have come to ABMB simply because they were invited, and because they want to support Megumi Sasaki. “She did a wonderful job” with the documentary, says Mrs Vogel. “She captured us the way we are. She worked very hard, and she agonised over it.
“I’ve never been to a fair like this—out of curiosity, I’d like to go see it,” she adds. And there is always the chance to connect with a new artist, renew an old acquaintance or even—just maybe—buy something.
US collector extraordinaire dies aged 89
Herbert Vogel: the New York postal worker who collected US post-war art
By Javier Pes. Web only
Published online: 24 July 2012
Herbert Vogel, a former postal worker and art collector extraordinaire, died aged 89 on 22 July.
Herbert and his wife, Dorothy, collected more than 2,500 works of minimalist and conceptual art by artists including Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre and Ed Ruscha. The couple began collecting in 1962.
They lived for many years in a small New York apartment that overflowed with art, books and their pets—at one point they owned eight cats, 19 fish and 20 turtles. They used his pay cheque to buy art while living on her librarian's salary.
In 1992 they bequeathed much of their collection to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, which also purchased some works. In 2008 the National Gallery of Art helped distribute more than 2,000 works as gifts to more than 50 institutions across the US. These included the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta and the Seattle Art Museum.
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Dorothy and Herbert Vogel with one of their pet cats
Dorothy and Herbert Vogel at home in their art-crowded kitchen in New York