When ARTnews published its list of 2013’s top 200 art collectors a few months ago, it was full of real estate moguls, mining moguls, technology moguls, luxury goods moguls, shipping moguls, and, well, you get the idea.
The fact that art collecting is dominated by the extremely wealthy is nothing new, of course. People with money to burn have always been patrons of the arts. But two of the greatest collectors of recent times, Herb and Dorothy Vogel, weren’t moguls. Herb, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 89, worked at the post office; Dorothy was a librarian.
Yet, the working-class New Yorkers, who started hitting the Soho galleries back in the 1960s when the neighborhood was a mecca for young artists, amassed an incredible collection of primarily minimal and conceptual art over the course of 50 years, buying pieces from the likes of Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Richard Tuttle, and the husband-and-wife duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude just to name a few before they became art world stars.
And, remarkably, the couple found a way to display and store thousands of paintings, drawings and other works in their modest Upper East Side one-bedroom apartment, which was also home to cats named after famous artists (Herb and Dorothy even cat sat for Christo and Jeanne-Claude's kitty), fish, and turtles.
The Vogels could have made a killing by selling their collection, but they weren’t motivated by money. They simply loved looking at art, talking about art and getting to know the artists behind the work, and after they retired from collecting, they donated a stash estimated to be worth millions to the National Gallery of Art, which kept much of it and also helped distribute 2,500 works to 50 museums in each of the 50 states as we see in the new film Herb & Dorothy 50 x 50, director Megumi Sasaki’s follow-up to her 2008 documentary Herb & Dorothy.
Here, Dorothy tells Co.Create how she and her husband indulged their passion for art, and she offers advice to aspiring collectors who don’t have a lot of money to work with.
I discovered the easiest way was for me to pay the bills [from my salary]. My husband’s salary went to the art.
I don’t think we made sacrifices. We enjoyed life, and we did what we wanted to do. So what did we give up? We don’t drive, so we didn’t have to buy a car. We did eat out but not at expensive places. We both had full-time jobs. So there wasn’t much time to get into trouble.
I would never advise someone to buy art unless they had enough money to live on properly. We did it because I was able to afford paying our living expenses. It’s helpful to have two salaries. I would never advise someone to go into hock. We did buy on time, but I was very careful that we did pay our bills.
I personally liked to know the artist because that helped me to understand the work better. It was a big help for me, but you don’t have to know the artist. Not everybody wants to know the artist because artists can be very temperamental. Some people would just rather get art from a dealer and not be bothered with the personality of an artist, but I enjoyed the artists. I enjoyed their company, and I enjoyed learning from them.
There was a work by Andy Warhol—it was a painting of airmail stamps. It would have fit well into our collection because my husband worked for the post office, and we saw it very early at Martha Jackson Gallery, and there was a misunderstanding because we could have gotten it right away, but we didn’t. We went back, and it was sold to someone else. So we learned very, very early within the first year [of collecting] from that mistake. You don’t always get another opportunity. So you really have to be able to work quickly and use your own judgment.
It would have been nice to have gotten [a piece from] the big abstract expressionists, but those were not affordable when we were buying art. So that’s why we were getting work from the emerging artists whose works were not expensive and that we could afford.
Since minimalist and conceptual work was not quickly accepted by other people, we had no competitors. There were not many people in this country interested in that type of art. So that’s where we stepped in, and I guess we had the right attitude and the right resources and the right whatever—it was a matter of timing.
Since we didn’t have storage, we did have to take size into consideration. Many artists did very large paintings. We had no place to put a very large painting. Sometimes, a smaller work is more affordable anyhow.
A lot of times, artists do working drawings. Sometimes, people do prints or multiples. There are other things you can buy. You don’t have to buy a major painting.
When we started, we didn’t know about [protecting the art], but I had some friends who were very conscious of conservation. One was Ruth Vollmer. She was an artist, and she was the one that told us about using the proper paper and different tools and the proper way of framing things. Sometimes artists themselves aren’t careful with what they use.
We were like caretakers, and we felt that we had to protect the work because we knew, hopefully, the collection or the works would go on to other hands, and we didn’t want to be responsible for any damage.
We were very careful of where we put works. We had a lot of cats. I had a cat ruin a shower curtain, but I never had a cat ruin a work of art. We did have a fish tank, and behind the fish tank we had a Warhol cow poster—cow wallpaper. The fish splashed water on it, and it got some kind of watermark. We had to have it restored to remove the watermark. So the fish did more damage than the cats, and the turtles never got out of their tanks to do any damage.
I know some collectors that only buy at art fairs. I know a lot of dealers sell mainly at these art fairs, and I know that some artists like to show with dealers who go to the art fairs. This is something that happened over the past several years, but when we started collecting in the ’60s and ’70s, we never went to art fairs because they were all out of town. Having them in New York is a more recent thing. People used to have to go to Chicago, or they went to Venice or whatever. Since we didn’t do much traveling, we didn’t go to them.
I think it’s maybe helpful to go with a friend for some courage. It’s more fun when you do it with someone anyhow. I don’t want to do it by myself. It’s something Herb and I did together. It was fun. It’s something we enjoyed together. We just had a good time with it. It was an exciting time going to galleries, going to museums, going to an artist’s studio, meeting all these people.
My husband studied art, and I never did. I learned from him. I learned the easy way. He spent the time taking courses and studying and reading.
I still don’t like to read about art. I like to look at it and go to galleries. I don’t go to many galleries anymore now, but I did at one time. I learned about art by looking at it and talking to artists and people and just being with Herbie.