Herb and Dorothy Trailer from Herb and Dorothy on Vimeo.
I stand a little bit prouder as a librarian of Brooklyn Public Library today, after seeing Megumi Sasaki's film about art collectors Dorothy and Herbert Vogel. Herb and Dorothy, a documentary about the lives of librarian Dorothy and postal clerk Herb and their shared passion for art, opened on Friday at Cinema Village on East 12th Street. For those who do not know their story, the Vogels, living in a one-bedroom rent-controlled apartment on the East side, used her salary to cover their expenses and his to buy art. They pursued minimalist and conceptual art with a single-mindedness that verged on obsession, creating ongoing relationships with artists at the beginning of their careers and collecting not one but many works by each. They had to be able to afford it, and it had to fit into their apartment--those were their only rules. As the years passed, the livable space in their apartment diminished. The film shows the couple mainly living around their kitchen table, with art encroaching on all sides. When in 1992 they donated their entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., it took five moving trucks to empty their apartment.
The Vogels never sold and rarely swapped a piece of art. They could have become millionaires, moved to the South of France, bought a yacht--but chose not to acquire any of the trappings of material success. Instead they worked on, Herb retiring first, and Dorothy putting in 30 years of public service with this library system. Above is, I think--and someone will surely correct me if I am wrong--a picture of Dorothy Vogel (right) in our Business Library.
Dorothy's reasoning behind the decision to give their collection to the nation expressed the purest of public service attitudes. They had earned the money to buy the art in public service, she said, and so it was only right that the art should go back into public ownership. The merit for the work is all theirs, but still, we can certainly claim that Dorothy's daily labor at Brooklyn Public Library provided the Vogels with what they needed to live, making the Library a kind of sleeping partner in the creation of the collection.
The art of the collector is to see value and beauty where others do not, and to amass in one place works that, in proximity to others of their kind, take on a contexts and meanings that make them greater en masse than alone--and so in that sense, the Vogels are themselves artists. Extraordinary as Dorothy Vogel is, I have worked here long enough to know that behind many a librarian's breast beats a heart just as committed as hers to the pursuit of a private passion.