I’ve met my share of art collectors.
During the instructive year I manned the front desk at a sniffy art gallery on Madison Avenue in the 80’s, I watched a dandy in an ascot use his gold-tipped cane to highlight the shading on the breasts of a nude, and had a fur coat thrown at me by a pencil-thin, well-heeled woman wearing a diamond ring the size of Maine. To be an art collector was to be the member of a club not open to regular people – unless a fantastical amount of money accompanied your application. The fresh young art idealist in me was terribly disappointed to learn that private art collections showcasing museum-worthy art weren’t about the noble, the beautiful, or the joyful. They were about the money – pure and simple. We could have been selling mainframe computers in the gallery for all of the heart I found there (after all, it was the 80’s).
The story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel is one of an art collecting couple who broke all the rules. They were an entirely ordinary kind of couple. Dorothy was a librarian, and Herb worked sorting mail at the post office. Herb never finished high school. They lived in New York city in a tiny little apartment with a posse of cats.
Herb and Dorothy also happened to love art. I mean, really love it. They started out expressing their love of art as aspiring painters, and lined the walls of their apartment with their abstract expressions. They also brought home thick, glossy art history volumes from the New York Public Library, and visited the ramshackle galleries popping up around SoHo almost every day. Herb and Dorothy began their collection by making small purchases of paintings that “looked better than what we had on our walls at home.”
What happened next, over the course of the next 60 years, is the subject of a documentary film called Herb and Dorothy, chronicling the development of the Vogel’s art collection. Fueled by their unquenchable passion for art and their obsession with understanding the artistic process, they amassed a 4,000 piece art collection of masterworks that ended up at The National Gallery. The National Gallery was prepared to pay a pretty penny for their important collection – but the Vogels preferred to donate it. They also ended up friends with artistic pioneers Sol Lewitt, Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, and Christo and Jean Claude.
I love this story. I love it because it puts the heart back in to fine art for me. When viewing the work of an up-and-coming artist I like, I can often feel its soul. I have a sense of discovery, of ownership, of joy and inspiration.The business of ‘art as investment’ so often papers over the meaning of the art. The Vogels lacked lofty, academic explanations of a painting’s value, yet still, again and again, chose art of extraordinary importance, with no thought for its future value. That’s a metaphor for how I’d like to live my life; making choices straight from the heart, without obsessing how the choice will be of benefit to me in the future.