Fall Arts Preview '09: Collection agency 

How one unassuming couple transformed the art world, and the enterprising museum in our backyard

No bigger story currently buzzes in the art world than that of underground collectors Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. By regularly circumventing the gallery and buying directly from the artist, the Vogels gradually accumulated the greatest collection of minimalist, post-minimalist and conceptual art in the United States.

Over about 40 years, they acquired a staggering 4,000 pieces. And then the Vogels, as so lovingly documented in the recent film Herb & Dorothy, stored all their works somewhat haphazardly in their New York apartment. They knew it wasn't the ideal situation, but with their salaries from Dorothy's work as a librarian, and Herb's as a postal worker, it was the only way.

At least until they decided to give most of their collection to museums around the country.

The generous pair gifted about 2,400 works to Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art in 1990. In the following years, the NGA transported another 1,100 works from the Vogel home to the museum. Some will stay there, but 2,500 pieces have been broken into mini-collections, with a single museum in every state getting a piece of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States.

The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center was chosen as the Colorado recipient, and curator Blake Milteer says even 2 percent of what the Vogels gave means a great deal to the FAC.

"[The gift] stands up there in significance with two of the more significant ones, which would probably be the original gift from Alice Bemis Taylor of the Southwestern works and the gift in the 1940s from Elizabeth Sage Hare of American modernists," says Milteer. "And the two of those essentially formed the core of the collection."

Good on paper

Speaking from her Manhattan home, Dorothy Vogel sounds every bit the humble collector her story might suggest.

"I never studied art history, so I learned it from the artists themselves," Dorothy says. "I learned from my husband. I learned by looking."

Herb's interest in art exploded after he dropped out of high school and started hanging out with artists and taking adult art classes in the '50s. Dorothy eventually joined him after their marriage in 1962.

The Vogel collection earns shape from their down-to-earth attitude. Herb's salary was set aside for art buying, but even then, selections had to be affordable. Works on paper comprise much of the collection, since they're relatively cheap.

"Cheap," however, doesn't preclude "challenging." The Vogels are known for their penchant for tough art. One artist and friend the Vogels seem to particularly adore is Richard Tuttle, who often exhibits sketchbook-style watercolor swipes and smudges. Schooled experts often see muted beauty in the subtle works, but as Dorothy says, "If you're not a Richard Tuttle fan, I can't make you one."

As he unpacks a series of delicate Tuttle watercolor washes in the FAC basement, Milteer explains that he isn't worried about fitting a Tuttle into the museum's collection. Minimalism, he says, adds the ultimate dimensionality to the permanent collection of an institution known for cowboys and Southwestern art. Milteer also finds the Vogel collection the FAC received very exhibit-friendly, despite the difficult nature of some works.

Plus, paper art fits nicely into the FAC's future plans.

"For a museum of our size, collecting works on paper is a very viable endeavor," Milteer says. "We're never going to able to afford the big auction prices — buy ourselves a classic, 1962 Warhol. [This] is an area of growth for us, and the Vogel collection significantly bolsters that."

Milteer confesses to inquiring about the gift program in 2007, and says he was told the institutions had already been selected. He didn't learn that the FAC was one of them until the museum was notified last fall. The FAC itself held off on a public announcement until it started receiving shipments of the works in late July. At press time, they continue to be catalogued and framed.

Sneak previews

Herb and Dorothy, now 87 and 74, respectively, retired from collecting around a year ago. Dorothy says Herb is too frail to visit galleries and studios.

"We collected together ... and since he is no longer in a position to do it, I've stopped with him, so we're not collecting anymore," she says. "And I really couldn't handle having more works, because my life is full of taking care of him."

She adds: "I think I've lost my sense of concentration. I don't know if I could do it again. You get into a groove, a mindset ..."

It required five full-sized moving vans to empty the first round of works from the Vogels' home in late 1990. That nearly liquidated the mountains of boxes that eclipsed their living room and covered their walls, ceiling to floor.

Dorothy and Herb had acquired so much art, they couldn't really enjoy it all. Had they given it all to a single institution, the work would have met a similar fate.

"If it was all in one institution, they'd all be in storage and no one would ever see it," Dorothy says. "This way, 2,500 works will be seen within the first five years of the project."

(The five-year rule is one of the gift policies; the other is a no-deaccession rule, meaning that the gifts can never be auctioned off.)

Milteer plans a full Vogel show next spring. But a few works can now be seen at the Fine Arts Center Modern, alongside other recent gifts, as well as in the permanent collection galleries at the FAC proper.

When asked if she misses the works they gave away, Dorothy replies quickly: "I don't have the feeling we're giving it away. I still feel it's our collection.

"We buy the works to be seen, and unfortunately we had a small space in our apartment and we couldn't do justice to that aspect of collecting," she adds. "But with this project, we're able to show what we had."


Click here for the complete Fall Arts Preview 2009 table of contents!


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