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Herb And Dorothy

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jun 5, 2009
Herb and Dorothy Vogel: art collectors extraordinaire
Herb and Dorothy Vogel: art collectors extraordinaire  (Source:Fine Line Media)

In Herb and Dorothy, director Megumi Sasaki trains the camera on a long-married couple, Herb and Dorothy Vogel, for a documentary about how a postal worker and a librarian assembled a wide-ranging, comprehensive collection of New York art over the course of more than four decades.

Herb is depicted in one drawing by an artist friend as leaning forward, his eyes intent and focused on something: he's a creature of visual delight, always rapt before beauty. Beside him, Dorothy stands upright and assessing: she, too, has an eye for art, but her response is more thoughtful.

The two make a good pair, and between them, they make a formidable, if friendly, presence on the arts scene. They explain how they amassed such a huge collection: they lived on Dorothy's salary, and used Herb's to buy art. They homed in on promising young artists while their work was inexpensive. Some artists began to regard the two as "exploiting" them, but that could be seen as presumptuous given that other artists saw in Herb and Dorothy a chance to sell some of their wares and pay their rent.

Rather than resenting them, a veritable posse of artists and art historians look at them with fondness and even reverence. One artist refers to them as "mascots of the art world," but another nails them more precisely, identifying them as denizens of the creative realm and saying that, "The art world is their habitat."

And they are serious connoisseurs: though they say things like, "Beauty is enjoyable," and insist that art need not "represent" anything, they also have what one artist calls an "aesthetic eye." That vision peers deeply: as another artist notes, "They like the most unlikeable work--the most difficult, the least decorative, the most rigorous."

And some of the most visionary, evidently. After all those years of collecting, when the pair became famous for their passion and their extensive holdings--which they somehow crammed into a tiny Manhattan apratment, along with an array of turtles, fish, and cats--museums began to offer them serious money for their stuff.

Herb and Dorothy refused to sell anything, though they might have made millions; instead, they donated their art collection to the National Gallery of Art, and, when even the National Gallery could not accept all of their treasures, to museums in all 50 states.

It all sounds mad, and improbable, but one interviewee points out that what Herb and Dorothy did, anyone could do--given, of course, the passion and the talent that the long-married couple share.

As Herb told Charlie Rose in 1992, "I didn't think money was the most important thing, and I think the collection is." Indeed, their gift of so much important art to so many museums was utterly free of ego: the collection needed a good home, and Herb and Dorothy were acting in its best interests, just as any guardian of cultural wealth might do.

The film is beautiful in itself. It's more than a record of two extraordinary people who present themselves in salt-of-the-earth ways and who remain utterly free of pretension and self-importance despite many years of immersion in the art world; well photographed, well edited, and well organized, the film is as rigorous as anything in the famed collection, and--thanks to its stars, whose onscreen rapport is tender and touching--instantly likable.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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