If Ripley's Believe It or Not! were still around, Herb and Dorothy Vogel would surely be in it for amassing a world-class art collection on the most ordinary of working-class salaries. "They are one of the biggest collectors of new art in New York City," says artist Lucio Pozzi, "and you would never believe it."
"Herb & Dorothy," a documentary directed by Megumi Sasaki, examines how it came to be that this seemingly ordinary couple, a nighttime postal worker and a librarian, came to put together a collection of nearly 5,000 pieces that was so significant it was accepted as a gift by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
At first glance, Herb (everyone calls him Herbie) and Dorothy seem like everyone's kindly grandparents or, as artist Chuck Close calls them, "the mascots of the art world." But it's not everybody who lives in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with a cat, 19 large turtles, lots of fish and all that art.
As it turns out, the notion that anyone who puts their mind to it can collect this way is not really supported by this film. The Vogels' story is a very specific one, at once more unexpected and more moving than it might seem at first.
Herb was the initial art enthusiast, so much of a devotee that he took Dorothy to the National Gallery on their honeymoon. Back in New York, they both tried to be artists but didn't have what it took to succeed and gradually transitioned into collecting, using her salary to live on and his for art. Their only criteria: Whatever they bought had to be affordable and it had to fit into their apartment.
As conversations with artists, curators and dealers make clear, the Vogels brought a number of specific traits to the task at hand. For one thing, they were passionate, with a love for art equal to what the artists themselves had. For another, they had excellent taste: "Whatever I did, I did without the rules of other people," Herbie insists. "I did it because I wanted to do it."
Another factor that helped the Vogels was an accident of timing. They started their serious collecting just when Minimalism and Conceptual art were starting to take hold in New York.
The Vogels confessed that they didn't understand these works at first, but, as Herb says, "I liked something that wasn't done before."
Once they latched onto artists, the Vogels were frankly obsessive, as voracious as addicts in their appetite for art. "They were greedy, thank God they were greedy," says one artist, and Close adds, "they were cute, funny, passionate, enthusiastic. They came cash in hand and no one else was buying."
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Vogels' collection is what they did with it. Though by this point in time their art is worth millions of dollars, they've refused to sell a single piece, opting instead for that National Gallery donation.
"We both had worked for the government and we wanted to give back to the people of the United States," Dorothy Vogel says. They gave back so much, as it turns out, that their collection filled five huge moving vans and stimulated the National Gallery to collect more in their area.
"Finally, they lived only for art," says Jeanne-Claude, the artist Christo's collaborator. "They gave up their lives for it. They are pure people, they have given everything they had."
'Herb & Dorothy'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: At Landmark's Nuart in West L.A.