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Art collectors Dorothy and Herb Vogel a few years ago in their art-filled New York apartment (Herb died last summer.)
Art collectors Dorothy and Herb Vogel a few years ago in their art-filled New York apartment (Herb died last summer.)

Meet the Vogels: New doc shows not every great art collector is a gazillionaire Add to ...

As husband-and-wife teams go, Herb and Dorothy Vogel likely don’t resonate in the public’s imagination like the fabled Curies (Marie and Pierre), Lunt and Fontanne, Burns and Allen, or Ike and Tina. But in the international art world, they’re legends.

So much so that the pair, married in 1962, has been the focus of two feature-length documentaries, the first, Herb & Dorothy, released to universal acclaim in 2008 and the second, Herb & Dorothy 50X50, set to have its world premiere next month at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the couple’s home town of New York. Megumi Sasaki, director of both films, is currently putting the final post-production touches to 50X50 but she’s agreed to screen excerpts Wednesday evening to open the 10th annual REEL Artists Film Festival in Toronto. Accompanying Sasaki to the event will be Dorothy Vogel herself who, at 77, is making her first visit to the Ontario capital.

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Herb won’t be in attendance, though. He died last July at 89 after several years of ill health. But living vigorously on is his legacy and that of his wife – namely, the astonishing 4,000-plus-piece collection of modern art that, as a childless couple, they accumulated over almost 50 years on salaries, then pensions, as a postal clerk (him) and a librarian in Brooklyn (her). They stored and displayed virtually all the work – paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs and installation pieces by the now-famous (Chuck Close, Richard Tuttle, Donald Judd, Joseph Beuys, Cindy Sherman, Christo) and the not-so famous (Martin Johnson, Alain Kirili) – in a rent-subsidized one-bedroom apartment on New York’s Upper East Side.

Priding themselves on their loyalty to the artists they liked, the Vogels made a point of never selling anything they bought even though, by the 1990s, such sales would have made them millionaires. As acquisitions swelled, and the apartment’s square footage didn’t, the only place that wasn’t a repository for art was the oven. Even the ceiling had art. Adding to the clutter was a menagerie composed of as many as eight cats, with names like Corot, Whistler, Manet and Renoir, plus 20 turtles and 19 fish.

Dorothy Vogel continues to live in the apartment but in much less crowded circumstances. There is only one cat now, called Archie, no turtles and no fish.

Most significantly, there is a lot less art. And not just because Dorothy has “completely stopped” acquiring it. (“That part of my life is over,” she said in a phone interview.) In 1992 – two years after she retired as a librarian, 13 after Herb quit the U.S. Postal Service – the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., announced it would be taking, in a combination donation/for-cash deal, the entire Vogel holdings into its permanent collection. Five full-sized moving vans were needed to handle the cargo. However, this didn’t dissuade the Vogels from continuing to collect, again with the intention of handing over these additional purchases to the NGA. A few years later, though, when it became evident it wouldn’t be possible to place everything in the gallery, the collectors and Ruth Fine, the then-NGA curator for special projects in modern art, hit upon an audacious plan: give 50 art works from the Vogel collection to an art institution in each of America’s 50 states, on the understanding that each would never sell nor break up the gift and that each would show all 50 works within five years of receiving them. It’s this disbursal, started in 2008, that serves as the narrative spine for the new Sasaki documentary.

Vogel said her husband occasionally would purchase things on his own but usually the commitment was mutual. “Although he liked things that were more flamboyant, and I liked things that were more cerebral, we had a common meeting ground, so when you see the work, there’s a consistency about it.”

While Vogel clearly misses her husband, she admits that, when it comes to the absence of much of their art collection, “It’s nice to have space. In the morning,” she said, laughing, “I can actually take a walk and stretch my legs,” albeit with a cane “because my balance is not good.”

“I never studied art, not really,” said Vogel. “I never developed the vocabulary to understand a lot of it. A lot of the things I learned were through my husband [who, in the late 1940s and 1950s, was a regular at the Cedar Tavern, a haunt of New York’s famous abstract expressionists], going to panel discussions, talking to artists and looking at works myself. … Living in New York, I had access to knowing the artists, learning from them. Others elsewhere would have to read books.”

The REEL Artists Film Festival, sponsored by the Canadian Art Foundation and specializing in films about art and artists, runs Wednesday through Sunday in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Information at www.canadianart.ca/raff/

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