The story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel reads like fiction. Two civil servants meet and marry in 1962, residing in a rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Living on her salary as a librarian, they eschew dining out and travel in favor of spending Herb's salary as a postal worker, which peaks at $23,000, on collecting minimalist and conceptual art. They did this not for investment purposes, but because of a shared passion for art and artists, many of whom they get to know intimately through years of visits to their studios.
Thirty years after their marriage, the Vogels chose to transfer more than 4,700 pieces of their collection to the National Gallery of Art. If the choice of the Washington museum seems odd for native New Yorkers who supported the local art scene, it wasn't for Herb and Dorothy. They wanted to ensure that their prized possessions went to an institution that didn't sell donated works and, more importantly, didn't charge admission. They wanted their art to belong to the public.
The logical next step for the Vogel collection happened in 2008 when the couple launched "The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States," donating works to an institution in each state. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts received the donation for Virginia, and all 50 pieces are going on exhibit here July 27 through Oct. 20.
Many of the pieces are works on paper, partly because the Vogels had a one-bedroom apartment with limited storage space, but also because they loved the immediacy of drawings. Those same space constraints prevented them from collecting much sculpture, but not the preparatory drawings that sculptors do when conceiving pieces, which the collectors felt better conveyed the dynamics and power of 3-D objects than scale models did. And while some people automatically think large-scale when they hear the term "contemporary art," the Vogels' collection contains many small works.
"Their collection is a time capsule," explains Sarah Eckhardt, the museum's assistant curator of modern and contemporary art. "If you look back on reviews from back then, these were the artists showing at the time. You really get a sense of the New York art scene at that time, the '70s and '80s, and how diverse it was. The scene was small enough then that they could get to know the artists." In a 1993 interview with the National Gallery's Ruth Fine, Herb Vogel recalled that not a lot of people were collecting what they were in those days — minimal and conceptual art. They also collected the various tangents such as figurative and neo-expressionist works.
The fascinating show features pieces by better-known names such as Richard Tuttle and Judy Rifka, and artists that have become lesser-known, such as Thornton Willis. Then there is Daryl Trivieri, about whom very little is known, although the Vogels collected him extensively, and every institution received some of his work. "In a way," Eckhardt says, "the Vogels are continuing to support artists like Trivieri by exposing him to audiences in all 50 states."
Despite present-day unfamiliarity with some of the artists, the show is positively inspirational for would-be collectors, especially everyday collectors such as the Vogels. In the 1993 interview, Herb downplayed any particular talent on their part. "When we did it, we didn't realize we were doing it. We were doing it just for the joy."
Eckhardt sees that joy as still attainable. "What people can do is, in their own way, get to know the artists they like and follow their work," she says. "Richmond has an art scene worth engaging. Choosing art you like is an important way to support the local scene. The thing that's inspirational about the Vogels is how passionate they were on a middle-class income, how willing they were to give up other things to collect art. They were so interested in understanding an artist's vision. It was never about amassing art based on its value. It was about getting to know challenging artists and appreciating their vision. For local artists to have people look closely at their work and strive to understand is important." S
"The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States" runs July 27- Oct. 20 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard. A preview of the documentary "Herb & Dorothy 50 x 50" will be shown Aug. 9 at 6:30, with a discussion following with Dorothy Vogel. For information, call 340-1400 or go to vmfa.state.va.us.