Home > 555. The Golden Thread, 88. The Quaggas of Creativity, C. The Thinker As Hero > The Vogels: Collecting Art as if your Life Depended on it

The Vogels: Collecting Art as if your Life Depended on it

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Serious art collectors are not easy to find. There is the cost, of course, and the question of whether or not a particular piece represents an innovation or makes a lasting statement in its particular genre. Next, there is the relationship between the artist and the collector: is it constructive, helping the artist (often unknown and without financial resources) to continue his or her work? And then storing the art and letting the art world know about the existence of the collection are other important considerations.

In Europe, wealthy individuals began collecting art during the Renaissance. Their purchases were displayed in lavish homes and palaces and seen by an elite audience, one capable of patronizing artists working in the acceptable styles of the day. The artists made a living from their work and their patrons won the reputation of supporting some of the best expressions of their culture. Ordinary people had little to do with the process.

However that may be, the public in Rome did have access to great works of art starting in 1471, when the Capitoline Museums were opened, exhibiting an important collection of ancient Roman bronzes donated by Pope Sixtus IV. This pioneering institution was followed by the Vatican Museums in 1506 (also displaying ancient statuary); after this, public museums opened in London (1660), Basel (1671), Besançon (1691), and St. Petersburg (1717).

Other opening dates for famous museums: the British Museum in London, opened to the public in 1759; the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, opened to the public in 1765; the Hermitage Museum (founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great), opened to the public in 1852; the Belvedere Palace collection in Vienna, opened in 1781; and the Louvre Museum in Paris, opened to the public in 1793.

The Charleston Museum was established in 1773, making it the first American museum; it opened to the public in 1824.

This brief summary suggests that ecclesiastical, royal, and philanthropic patronage of art has been important to the development of western art over the last 500 years–but can more ordinary individuals become serious art collectors? To judge by the story of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, the answer seems to be yes. This modest couple, filled with enthusiasm for the arts, created over the last 45 years a collection of significant work so large that no single museum can house it: more than 4,700 pieces of conceptual and minimalist art.

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The origins of the Vogels lies in the working and middle classes of New York City. Herbert Vogel, who died in 2012 at the age of 89, was the son of a Russian Jewish garment worker; Dorothy Vogel was the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish stationery merchant in Elmira, New York. Herb (as he was known to friends) dropped out of High School, later fought in WWII, and worked most of his life as a night clerk at the U.S. Post Office sorting letters; Dorothy received a BA and MA in library sciences (respectively, from Syracuse University and the University of Denver) and worked as a reference librarian in the Brooklyn Public Library.

The couple were married in 1962 and by 1965 had decided that they would devote themselves to collecting art. Their financial resources consisted of Herb’s entire annual salary, which peaked at $23,000. This did not prevent them from collecting work by some famous artists, starting with a ceramic piece by Pablo Picasso, bought to celebrate their engagement. But it is in their patronage of unknown artists working in avant-garde styles that the Vogels have made their biggest contribution to the arts.

By necessity they concentrated on the dynamic art world of NYC in the mid- to late-20th century. After they married, the first piece of art they purchased was a colorful, abstract metal sculpture by John Chamberlain (a sculpture that reminds RT of the crushed and twisted forms created by George E. Ohr, “the mad potter of Biloxi”). Other struggling artists who found shelter under the wing of the Vogels include Robert Barry (non-material works of art, installations, and performance art), Edda Renouf (minimalist paintings, drawings, and etchings), and Richard Tuttle (post-minimalist painting, sculpture, and installations). Needless to say, deep and enduring friendships developed between the Vogels and the artists they supported.

Collecting did not come to the Vogels without its discipline. The couple scrimped on or avoided vacations, dinners out, and other pleasures that most people would consider part of their overall well-being. They never had children and lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan that was gradually (partially) taken over by shipping crates full of art. One exception to this frugality, Herb’s fondness for animals, led them to acquire many pets–cats and fish.

On the other hand, the Vogels did not labor in anonymity for very long; their collection received its first public exhibition in 1975 and exhibitions continued from that time until 1992, when the Vogels decided to transfer their entire collection to the National Gallery of Art because it charges no admission. In 2008, they launched The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States, which has donated 2,500 works to 50 institutions across the 50 states.

RT will gladly admit to never having heard of most of the artists that the Vogels have worked with. The works that these contemporary artists have produced can seem (at least to RT’s eye) challenging, even forbidding. As with all great art, whatever the genre, they require time–time to observe, time to ponder, time to become acquainted. Nonetheless, what may at first seem a failure (or even a joke) can take us into the lives of the artist that produced it–and thus into our own life. Subtle, difficult, rewarding; but isn’t the same true of the most traditional and accepted fine art? While examining Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel murals we ponder their technique, the challenges of the age that produced them, and the difficulties the artist endured in creating them…in the works collected by the Vogels, we ponder the same aspects of creativity and beauty.   RT

Photo: top:  Alan Ebnother sitting in front of one of his paintings in his studio. WikiCmns. Public Domain. middle: Black Square, State Russian Museum; Kazimir Malevich, 1915; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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  1. Pistrucci
    January 10, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    Reblogged this on Pistrucci Artworks Blog.

  1. August 9, 2013 at 5:59 pm
  2. December 24, 2013 at 9:16 pm

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