Herbert Vogel was born in Manhattan in August, 1922.  A high school dropout, Vogel worked as a garment-worker and was an army veteran. He met his wife Dorothy in 1960 and they were married in 1962. Herbert was a postal worker who worked evenings and never earned more than $23,000 in any given year. Dorothy was a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. They lived very modestly, did not own a car, and cared for eight cats and twenty exotic turtles. For 50 years they lived in New York City in a one bedroom, rent controlled apartment. What makes Dorothy and Herbert Vogel’s story unique? I’m glad you asked!

In 1990, Herbert and Dorothy decided to do what many couples their age do—downsize and weed out. Since they had no children The National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. was the lucky benefactor of some of the art they had collected over the years. What could two elderly civil servants possibly have that would be of interest to the National Gallery? You’ll be glad you asked!

The couple started slowly collecting art shortly after they were married, buying on credit and paying in installments. Their arrangement was simple—they would use Herbert’s salary, and eventual pension, to buy art, and use Dorothy’s for the day to day expenses. Again you must be asking why this story is unique. You see, with this elementary plan, Herb and Dorothy art collection eventually grew to almost 5000 pieces by some of the most renowned (now) modern artists of our time. Buying only pieces they liked, their first piece was a small crushed-metal sculpture by John Chamberlain. According to the Vogel’s, they had three rules for acquiring art: “It had to be inexpensive; it had to be small enough to be carried on the subway or in a taxi; and it had to fit inside their one-bedroom apartment.”

John Chamberlain sculpture circa 1959

The Vogel’s were able to make the most of their developing relationships with these emerging artists many of whom were anxious to have their work become part of this burgeoning collection. Often they bartered or were offered considerable discounts, which allowed Herb and Dorothy to be on the cutting edge of the minimal and conceptual art movement, for which they had a particular affinity. This process often caused more than a few ill feelings with art dealers who felt this practice cheated the established system of art acquisition.Among their purchases were early works by Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Christo, Lynda Benglis, Richard Tuttle, Donald Judd, and Dan Graham. In more recent years they collected works by Andy Goldsworthy, James Siena and Pat Steir, among others. They were not only considered important collectors, but also a refreshing presence in the affluent and exclusive art market of New York. They became part of this art scene thanks in part to Herbert’s attendance at as many as art lectures as he could, and his becoming a regular at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village which was famous hangout, frequented by such artists as Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and David Smith. Herbert once reminisced, “I was nothing—a postal clerk, but I respected the artists, and they sort of respected me. They would talk until 3, 4 in the morning, and I would be one of the people who just listened. I just remember it very vividly. I never even asked a question.”

Their apartment was so jammed with drawings, paintings and sculpture; they had to traverse the stacks, choosing art over excess furniture. Their closets were bulging. The Vogel’s never sold anybof their art in the secondary market, preferring their collection be available to all, for free, which is why they chose the National Gallery as their benefactor. In 1992, the Vogel’s worked with then Director, J. Carter Brown to start the process of bequeathing their collection The National Gallery. Logistically this was quite an undertaking both on paper as well as physically—five full-size moving vans were needed to move the art. Brown has referred to their collection “a work of art in itself.”

The Vogel collection is considered a 50 year timeline of the minimal (all unneccesary details are omitted) and conceptual (the idea or concept is what’s important) art movement and a snapshot of sorts of European and American artists since 1960. In 1992 Herbert commented that he and his wife could easily have become millionaires. “But we weren’t concerned about that aspect,” he said. Herbert and Dorothy are a testament to the idea that you don’t have to be wealthy to collect art. Dorothy once said “You can buy art; you don’t have to be rich. You can enrich your life.”

Due to declining health, Herbert had been unable to live in his apartment for several years. Sadly, Herbert Vogel died a few weeks ago of natural causes. Dorothy remains in their apartment among the newest works they began collecting after donating so many to the National Gallery.

Parts of the Vogel Collection travel throughout the US, including the Portland Art Museum in 1998. Thanks to a program the Vogel’s and The National Gallery instituted called The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States, 2,500 works from the collection will be distributed to all 50 states, with fifty works going to a selected art institution in each.

To learn more about Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, watch this PBS Independent Lens episode or read this article.

Now go out there and buy some art!