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Notorious New York Collectors, Herb and Dorothy

I went to the movie Herb and Dorothy the other day with an old art school friend and my partner and finally got to find out who are the notorious Herb and Dorothy Vogel. I had heard about them, back when I first moved to New York from art school in the midwest, and I was office managing an equally notorious art trucking company in the East Village.

Herb and Dorothy, I had heard, are world class art collectors, who are simple struggling New Yorkers, like the rest of us. Herb was a postal worker, and Dorothy was a librarian.

The movie is a must see for anyone interested in some of the inner workings of New York’s art scene, and anyone nostalgic for how people used to and in many cases still do get by living in such a tough town.

What is initially clear was how differently people live in New York than the rest of the country. A small, cramped, dingy apartment, the couple lived on Dorothy’s salary alone, and saved Herb’s salary for art collecting. In many cases for average New Yorkers, this is not possible to do.

Until recently, it was nearly impossible to find an affordable apartment, unless you lived way out in Queens or many stops out on the L in Brooklyn. I’m guessing that their apartment is rent controlled (vs rent stabilized, vs no rent increase limits). This means that their rent is stuck at 1970s prices, and can only be increased by minimal amounts. These apartments are virtually impossible to come by today, luckily for landlords who end up supporting the tenants whose rents don’t cover the cost of building upkeep.

Charming, obsessed art collectors, it seems that this couple with OCD for art did nothing else with their spare time but go to gallery openings, and shop for art. Unlike many of us today in New York, who throw away their money on high housing costs, electronic gadgets, and pour our money down the drain by using alcohol to keep us sane, this couple had each other and their fascination for artists. One gets the impression that they were the perfect audience for a band of nitwits who became artists’ savant. ( I say this because it appears that at least one of the incredibly successful artists in the movie appears to be missing teeth. Also because I heard Richard Tuttle lecture incoherently in grad school, and I’ve never understood why his work is so important.)

There are a couple of other points to note about their collection. Firstly, the length of the list of artists in their collection. It is long. And although I didn’t catch all the names in the list, I must say that there were many names I had never heard of (not that I’m one for remember the names of even the most important artists.) I believe that there must be many in their collection who are of no historical significance by today’s standards. This is probably the reason why the National Gallery is only willing to a small portion of the Vogel art collection. It is likely also the reason why, in the upcoming sequel to the movie, Herb and Dorothy 50 X 50, some artists in the collection are opposed to the idea of breaking up the collection. Nothing like being shoved into insignificance in some backwaters museum after years of being included in a world class collection.

Secondly, one should note a comment by a curator at the National Gallery. They have used the Vogel Collection as a guide to purchasing more art for the museum. As a (not-so) young collector myself and being a very part time aspiring artist, one realizes that most art collectors purchase work that is not museum quality. It is small enough to fit in one’s own living quarters, and it is affordable. I believe that both these were necessary requirements of Herb and Dorothy.

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