>> Herb and Dorothy (2009)

Title: Herb and Dorothy

Genre: Documentary

Starring: Herb and Dorothy Vogel

Director: Megumi Sasaki


Runtime: 89 minutes

Release Date: December 15, 2009

Format: DVD

Discs: 1

MPAA Rating: NR

Rating: 4.00 (out of 4.00)

Grade: A

Official Site

Art for All

Because the National Gallery can only hold 1,000 pieces of the Vogels' collection, fifty works have been distributed to museums in each of the fifty states (2500 total works) for display.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel met and married in the early 1960s and together began a lifelong love affair with art.  Megumi Sasaki’s fascinating and charming documentary Herb and Dorothy chronicles their journey from aspiring artists to serious collectors, filling it with the Vogels’ memories and interviews with artists, curators, and gallery owners.  The result is a rich, full portrait of two people who devoted their lives to each other and building an extraordinarily important collection of American modern art.

Herb, a postal worker and high school dropout who educated himself in art and fraternized with artists whenever possible, met Dorothy, a highly educated librarian, at a singles dance.  On their honeymoon in Washington, DC, Dorothy learned the depth of Herb’s passion for art when he took her to the National Gallery and began teaching her all he knew.  During his studies, Herb had begun drawing and painting and to be closer to him, Dorothy did the same, but when they saw that others were producing superior work, they became collectors.  Amazingly, Herb and Dorothy (along with their cats, turtles, and fish) managed to live only on her salary while devoting his to the purchase of art.  They had three rules: the art had to be affordable, it had to fit in their one bedroom apartment, and they had to like it.  Using those rules, Herb and Dorothy amassed a collection, mostly of minimalist and conceptual art, of 4,782 pieces. 

Wisely choosing as yet unknown artists from the less popular art genres of the time, Herb and Dorothy were able to not only begin an important collection of modern art, but become an integral part of the art scene itself, befriending many of the artists whose works they collected.  However, at least one gallery owner made it clear he felt Herb and Dorothy exploited those artists by offering lowball amounts for their work and that because they often dealt directly with the artists, they hurt gallery owners and dealers, as well.  That said, the importance of Herb and Dorothy’s now priceless collection is never in dispute and the assembling of that collection was both a joy and an obsession for the couple.  To finance their purchases, the Vogels lived a frugal life and to house the art, they lived in an apartment so stuffed it could have been features in an episode of Hoarders.  Just the glimpses we got gave my anal-compulsive heart palpitations.  Eventually there was simply no room left (there was not so much as a sofa in the apartment: every spare inch, even under the ever-rising bed, was covered in art).  According to Dorothy, it was then that the National Gallery came to the rescue.

Several institutions had offered to buy all or part of Herb and Dorothy’s collection, but they were all rebuffed.  Herb says in the film that he understands why some collectors do sell, but it wasn’t for them.  They were willing; however, to donate the collection to the National Gallery so it could remain intact and because the National Gallery is free for all to visit.  Before any final decisions could be made, the collection had to be inventoried at the Gallery and getting it there took weeks, five giant moving vans, and many prayers that the deal would go through so the collection wouldn’t have to be transported back.  The deal did go through, and the grateful National Gallery pressed an annuity upon Herb and Dorothy so they could have some financial peace of mind and perhaps buy a couch.  Not surprisingly (except to the National Gallery’s adorably clueless curator), Herb and Dorothy have instead used the annuity to buy more art.  In one of the film’s quietest but most telling moments, Dorothy’s sister, sitting in a comfortable and traditionally furnished living room, says she just wants Dorothy to live more like she does and that she could if she only sold a painting or two.  Watching this film, you know that living like that would drive Dorothy as crazy as living like Dorothy would make her sister.  Art, both for artists and collectors, is a consuming passion, something often incomprehensible to anyone on the outside looking in.

Though much time is devoted to the artwork in Herb and Dorothy’s collection, Herb and Dorothy is not a documentary about what constitutes great art: that is left for the viewer to decide. We learn that Herb has the more instinctive eye for art, but Dorothy’s opinion is no less valued.  When Dorothy showed Mike Wallace a Richard Tuttle piece that was, essentially, a squiggle of rope, he plaintively asks, “What does it mean” and Dorothy quietly replies “It doesn’t mean anything.  It’s art.”  Though much of the art she and Herb collected is considered idea-driven, Dorothy says in the film that if something appeals to her visually, she likes it.  That is exactly how simple liking art should be and it’s wonderful to the appreciation of art shown without pretense and snobbery.  According to Dorothy, the collecting has been fun and that if it stops being fun, they’ll stop collecting.

The paltry extras included are theatrical trailers, footage from film festivals and the New York premiere, and some deleted scenes that, while mildly interesting, contain little substance.  The video quality of this beautifully shot film is excellent, as is the audio.  Herb and Dorothy is a heartwarming and surprisingly thought-provoking documentary about two people who loved art enough to happily spend their lives creating a massive collection that others can now share.


The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States


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