September 6, 2013

How to amass a world-class art collection on a librarian’s salary


Dorothy (a librarian) and Herbert Vogel (a postal worker) collected almost 5,000 works of art and donated it all to museums across the United States.

Dorothy Vogel was a librarian. Her husband Herb was a postal worker. Over a 45-year period, the seemingly ordinary New York couple collected more than 4,000 works of art that are worth several million dollars today.

How did they do it?

In the 2008 film Herb and Dorothy, which opens at the International Film Center in Manhattan next week, filmmaker Megumi Sasaki tells the story of the Vogels art collecting, which began when they took classes at the Institute of Fine Arts at the start of their marriage. They soon realized that they weren’t artists themselves and that they both loved work that was unappreciated in the early 1960s. Even on their modest incomes, they began buying Minimalist and Conceptual art by Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Chuck Close, Pat SteirDonald Judd, Richard Tuttle, Sol LeWitt, Christo, and many other artists who are featured in the film. The New York Times quotes Herb as saying:

“I was nothing — a postal clerk… But I respected the artists, and they sort of respected me. They would talk until 3, 4 in the morning, and I would be one of the people who just listened. I just remember it very vividly. I never even asked a question.”

They lived on Dorothy’s librarian salary, and used money Herb earned as a postal worker–he worked the midnight shift–to buy art. They had eight cats and thirty turtles, and according to the New York Times, they “sometimes did cat-sitting in exchange for art.”

By the 1980s, they had no more room for their art collection in their tiny Upper East Side apartment. According to a PBS profile:

“…the Vogels’ collection filled every corner of their living space, from the bathroom to the kitchen, floor to ceiling. ‘Not even a toothpick could be squeezed into the apartment,’ recalls Dorothy. ‘The place was bursting at the seams, and something had to be done.'”

In 1992 they decided to donate their entire collection to the National Gallery of Art. But at almost 5,000 pieces, the collection was too large for one museum. As a solution, the Vogels decided to give fifty works to one museum in every state. They did not sell a single work of art, since “having worked their whole lives as civil servants, their wish was to give back to the people of the United States.”

Until a few years ago, Herb and Dorothy lived in the same New York City apartment with their pet turtles, fish, and cats. Herb’s health was not good enough for him to travel to museum openings, but they travelled to many screenings of the film as it appeared in 2008 at the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Silverdocs Documentary Festival and won Audience Awards . On July 22, 2012, Herb died in a Manhattan nursing home.

Dorothy Vogel and filmmaker Megumi Sasaki will be answering questions during some of the upcoming screenings at the IFC.



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.