Herb and Dorothy (2008) tells the fascinating story of a pair of art lovers without much in the way of means—he’s a postal clerk; she’s a librarian—who still managed to build one of the most important collections of contemporary art. This is one of those documentaries that isn’t going to set the world on fire as filmmaking (there’s little in it that’s especially creative or unusual on that front), but nevertheless succeeds by offering a unique and compelling story that seems almost incredible.
Herb and Dorothy Vogel met in 1960, and he introduced her to the world of art—while learning about it himself. The two even tried their hands at being artists themselves, an idea that gradually gave way to collecting rather than creating. What’s most interesting about this is the way in which Herb views this change without any sense of feeling thwarted. Instead, he sees it as a natural transition.
Of course, the problem was that they were a couple with extremely limited finances, and this shut them out of the realms of the already pricey abstract expressionist and pop art works. This drove them to seek out and start collecting minimalist and conceptual works by as yet unknown artists. The pieces had to be within their price range and, just as important, they had to be small enough to fit into the Vogels’ apartment. What’s remarkable is that there’s never even a hint of compromise about this. Nothing either one says or does suggests an attitude that they’d have preferred to buy anything else—and the sense of actual excitement over what they did collect is almost tangible.
Equally remarkable is the fact that the couple had such innate good judgment that the pieces they collected are now worth millions of dollars. That’s no simple accomplishment. Their decision to donate that collection to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., is also noteworthy, but what else were they going to do if they were going to continue collecting once the apartment filled up?