The Vogels. Or, how to become a world class art collector on a postal clerk’s salary

I’m missing Art Basel | Miami this year. Last year’s event and surrounding shows displayed so much contemporary (and some modern) art, from so many artists and galleries that my head was buzzing for days afterward. This year I have our art251 gallery to co-run, so I’ve been visiting Art Basel virtually – reading the press releases, following the exhibitors and tuning in to the podcasts and vids, using the great tubes of the internet.

The best story by far to emerge this year from Art Basel | Miami is the continuing odyssey of Herb and Dorothy Vogel, their passion for contemporary art and their outstanding collection. On December 5, the documentary “Herb and Dorothy” was screened at Art Basel’s Art Loves Film night. And so their real-life art fairytale goes something like this…

Over the last 40-plus years they have amassed a cutting-edge, world-class collection of contemporary art. In all they have collected around 4,000 works. Over time they have crammed art into every spare inch of space inside their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. In 1992 they gave around 2,000 important pieces – paintings, drawings and sculptures – to the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. Then, in April of this year the National Gallery announced that an additional 2,500 of Vogels’ artworks would go to museums across the country: fifty works for fifty States. The National Gallery simply didn’t have enough space to house the Vogel’s immense collection.

So, why is this story so compelling?

Well, it’s compelling because they are just like you and me. They are not super-rich, they have no condo in Aspen, nor do they moor a yacht in Monte Carlo. They’re not hedge fund managers. They didn’t make a fortune before the dot.com bubble burst.

Herb Vogel, 86, is a retired postal clerk and Dorothy Vogel, 76, a retired librarian. They started collecting art in the 1960s and continue to this day. Their plan was simple and guided by two rules: the art had to be affordable, and small enough to fit in their apartment. Early on they decided to use Herb’s income for buying art, and Dorothy’s to paying living expenses. Though now retired they still follow the plan. They collect art because they love art and finding new art. In Dorothy’s words,

“We didn’t buy this art to make money… We did it to enjoy the art. And you know, it gives you a nice feeling to actually own it, and have it about you. … We started buying art for ourselves, in the 1960s, and from the beginning we chose carefully.”

More telling is Dorothy’s view of the art world, and the New York art scene:

“We never really got close to other people who collect… Most collectors have a lot of money, and they don’t go about their collecting in quite the same way. My husband had wanted to be an artist, and I learned from him. We were living vicariously through the work of every artist we bought. At some point, we realized that collecting this art was a sort of creative act. It became our art, in more ways than one. … I enjoyed the search, I guess. The looking and the finding. When you go to a store, and you’re searching for your size, don’t you get satisfaction when you find it?”

And Herb adds the final words:

“The art itself.”

So, within their modest means and limitations they have proved to be visionaries; many of the artists they supported early on have since become world-renowned. And, they have taken their rightful place among the great art collectors of the world, such as Getty and Rockefeller, and Broad and Saatchi. The Vogels used their limitations to their advantage – helping them focus, rather than being a hinderance. Above all, they used their eyes to find and collect great art, not their ears.

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