Inside Herb & Dorothy 50X50

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Long before this project launched, I stumbled upon the world of Herb and Dorothy Vogel through a little portal called "Netflix." Maybe you've heard of it. The film, an insiders view into the lives of two unlikely conceptual art collectors, aka Herb & Dorothy Vogel, examined just how the couple — him a postal clerk, her a librarian — amassed such a massive and vibrant collection of works, ranging from Sol Lewitt line drawings to John Chamberlin sculptures and beyond. Directed by Megumi Sasaki, the film is an homage to those who do not say, but do — a phrase that also lends itself to Sasaki's involvement in the work. (She was not a documentarian before she met the Vogels, but was compelled to become one as she witnessed the story unfolding.) Years later, Megumi is back chronicling the lives of the Vogels, as their collection, much of it now housed by the National Gallery of Art, begins to make an unlikely journey into the heart of America.  

You've now known Herb & Dorothy for years? Can you tell us what it was like when you first met them? How has your relationship evolved?

I first met them at a gala for artists Christo & Jeanne-Claude held in NY in 2004. I saw Herb and Dorothy among the art crowd who were all dressed up in designer clothes with champagne and white wine in hand, and they completely stood out. They looked like just ordinary, humble people who had nothing to do with art. But everybody was drawn to them and greeting them. Herb and Dorothy were like magnets. I went to introduce myself and said I had an idea to feature them on Japanese TV (that's what I was thinking at that time, not a film). They invited me to their apartment the next week. Everything started right away. They were very friendly but gave me only limited access at the beginning. It took me four years to finish the film and in the meantime, I visited them often and spent a lot of time, chatting, having lunch, sometimes helping them changing a light bulb, picking up dead fish, etc. without the camera rolling. Gradually, we developed our friendship and trust. And eventually Herb and Dorothy allowed me to follow and shoot them everywhere. Now I am accepted almost like their daughter, I think.

When you first met, did you have any clue how large their art collection was? What pieces blew you away? What surprised you? 

No, I didn't. Only thing I knew was they were famous collectors and they filled up their one-bedroom apartment with art works, that they later let go to the National Gallery. It was when I first saw the list of the Vogel Collection organized by the National Gallery that I learned how huge their collection was. It took me several minutes to scroll down to the bottom. I was unfamiliar with the majority of their works, but the one that blew my mind was Richard Tuttle's rope piece and wire piece. I just didn't get them at all. But in 2007, when I saw the works at the Tuttle's retrospective at the Whitney Museum, I was taken by their simplicity and absolute beauty. Not just the pieces themselves, but the space that surrounded the works. I realized a work of art is not just about what we see but also about what we don't see. That was an eye-opening experience for me.

Richard Tuttle's 3rd Rope Piece, 1974, from the Vogel collection
Richard Tuttle's 3rd Rope Piece, 1974, from the Vogel collection

How did the 50x50 project come out of the National Gallery acquisition?

The entire collection of Herb and Dorothy was transferred to the National Gallery in 1990. At that time, they estimated the number of works to be about 2,500. It's hard to imagine, but their apartment was totally emptied out then. Dorothy said she felt relieved, feeling her burden was lifted. I can imagine how stressful it could be living in a space without room for even a single toothpick, for years. The National Gallery already knew it wouldn't be possible to house all the works back then.

Herb and Dorothy kept collecting, at an even faster pace, again filling up their apartment very quickly. The total number of art works grew to over 4,000. The National Gallery figured they could accept only 1,100 works, and needed to find a creative solution to disperse the rest. Ruth Fine, the curator of NGA in charge of the Vogel Collection, came up with the idea of the Vogel 50X50 gift project — to group 50 works as one package and give to one museum in all 50 states, a total of 2,500 works.

Limited Edition Commemorative Sketchbook Cover designed exclusively by artist Lawrence Weiner
Limited Edition Commemorative Sketchbook Cover designed exclusively by artist Lawrence Weiner

Can you take us into the 50x50 project a little bit. Do you have a favorite collection or museum? Good stories from the exhibit openings. Feel free to expound as much as you'd like.

Each package of 50 works is created to represent a miniature version of the Vogel Collection. When you go to one of the 50X50 shows, you get a small overview of what the Vogel Collection represents. We followed the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, mainly because it is closest to New York and Herb & Dorothy as well as the artists were very involved with their show.

What was interesting was that they created a "living room" space in the exhibition to give an intimate feel to the collection. I also enjoyed the exhibition at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, where they used a very large space. Although the works are small and there are only 50 works, the show always looks much better in a large space. Space is an important part of the show, as it helps to gain a better 'experience' of art, particularly with minimal/conceptual art, I think.

After I shot at several museums, I found the museum docents very interesting. They are all volunteers, many of them retired, former nurses, teachers, federal investigators, nothing to do with art. They go through a lengthy, serious training. Their job is not to explain the art, but to act as liaison between art experts and the general public to engage them in art. It's not easy, specially for the kind of works in the Vogel Collection. I learned so much talking & listening to the docents. I will use their voice in the new film.

You were not a "filmmaker" before the first film. How did Herb and Dorothy, "non-art collectors," inspire you to take on and continue this project?

When I first heard about the Vogel 50X50 gift project, I didn’t think it possible to make another film on Herb and Dorothy.  To be honest, my energy and bank account had dried up.  At the same time, I truly hoped someone would document this unprecedented, gigantic philanthropic project, one I felt should be engraved in the history of art in America.  Then, in December 2008, I visited the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  They were one of the recipients of the 50X50 gift, and the first to exhibit the Vogel Collection.  Herb and Dorothy were invited to the opening, and I decided to film their visit (just in case).  I had seen the Vogel Collection in pictures, archival footage, catalogues, but until then, had never seen a real exhibition.  When I saw the show, I was so moved.  All the works were small in scale, and impeccably beautiful.  Humble but powerful, at the same time.  What a great eye Herb and Dorothy have for art, what a truly amazing collection they have built, I thought. It was like following famous actors for four years backstage, and finally getting to see their performance onstage, under the spotlight. I wanted to learn more about their collection myself. That was the moment when I decided to make a follow up film, now titled Herb & Dorothy 50X50

Ultimately, what do you think the Vogels 50x50 gift project will have in store for the future of American art? 

I am not an art expert, so I can only say what I hope. The Vogel 50X50 gift project is not just about a package of art works given to museums. The package brings a spirit of generosity, pure love and passion for art that you rarely see in today's art world, which is controlled by a handful of powerful dealers, collectors, critics and auction houses. The gift of Herb & Dorothy is a reminder that art is not just about money or fame.  It's also a reminder that art is accessible to all of us.  The kind of art they collected is not easily accessible or particularly likable to people not exposed to contemporary art. But when the works are introduced along with the story of Herb and Dorothy, people react differently. Suddenly art becomes an intimate part of life. I think it's wonderful that it gives a chance to see/experience contemporary art, particularly for younger generations in rural parts of the U.S.  One day, I am sure we'll hear from artist/curator/historian/dealer/collectors who were inspired by the Vogel Collection. And I don't think the impact is limited to the art community because it's about how we live, what we value and what to give back to the world we live in. It speaks to every culture or religion. Who could imagine what was started by a postal clerk and a librarian from their one-bedroom apartment in New York would end up with this massive scale of philanthropy project, like a Rockefeller? Herb abd Dorothy are American heros. I truly want them to be remembered in history.