Together with his wife Dorothy, Herbert Vogel, who died Sunday at the age of 89, spent about half a century accumulating an enormous collection of edgy contemporary art. In 1991, the couple gave almost their whole collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In 2008, they divvied up what remained of it among fifty museums in fifty states.
More striking than the couple’s generosity and sense of giving back to society is that unlike most contemporary art collectors, the Vogels were not wealthy. Herbert Vogel was a high-school dropout who earned his living as a postal worker, sorting mail during night shifts at various New York post offices. His wife worked as a reference librarian at a Brooklyn library. Even after they retired, this middle-class couple kept on collecting art, using their pension money to sustain their obsession. Unlike the type of art collector who emerged in the 1990s—the investment banker looking for a hot corner to park some money and flip whatever for a profit—they never bought art as an investment. They bought art only because they liked it, and they bought it strictly for keeps.
How could this tiny couple (each was only about 5 feet tall) living on a tiny income in a tiny New York apartment amass so much art that it took a couple of trucks to haul it away to Washington, D.C.? They did it the way you’d think—by limiting themselves to buying art that was inexpensive and small enough for them to carry home on the subway or in a taxi. They also seem to have been possessed with special powers (for all I know, maybe nothing more than sweet, winning smiles) that enabled them to cajole artists into selling their art at prices that were so far below what they normally charged that they were left wondering how they’d ever agreed to the deal.
Almost from the moment they returned home from their version of a honeymoon (a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit art museums), the Vogels began collecting art. They educated themselves about contemporary art by going to exhibition openings, attending art lectures and studying art magazines. The Vogels’ taste inexplicably yet naturally inclined toward edgy, avant-garde art—conceptual and minimal art most ordinary non-art people didn’t get at the time and still don’t cotton to now. Following their noses, they started piling it up before most rich collectors at the time even knew it was out there.
I fully understand the benefits that accrue to regular rich folk for whom collecting contemporary art is both a passion and a way to show off. Contemporary art has a way of lending an automatic aura of hipness to the people who buy and sell it, or hang it on their walls. But the Vogels were an entirely different sort. They didn’t own a fancy home where they could show off their art collection, they were hardly what you’d call glamorous, and they had no business need to impress other people with their art collection. How could such an ordinary, middle-class couple, buying art only for its own sake and buying it on such a low budget, have built a major contemporary art collection? Nothing in their education or background suggests an explanation. Their taste seems to have developed naturally, springing spontaneously out of their liking art and their openness to new visual ideas. Or more prosaically, as Mr. Vogel once put it, their collection started “on a whim.”
All art collectors are driven by a compulsion not merely to buy a work of art here or there, but to build a body of work. A mere razor’s edge in temperament separates passionate art collectors like the Vogels from, say, hoarders like the Collyer Brothers. Both see empty spaces in the home as voids where they can stash stuff. Yet the razor’s edge that separates collectors from hoarders is sharp. While hoarders consider anything and everything in the material world as suitable for hauling back home and stacking in piles—to the point where they often end up in squalor—such art collectors as the Vogels are exceedingly finicky in deciding what they’ll bring home, not to mention how they treat what they buy once they bring it back home.
By 1992, when the Vogel collection was worth millions, Mr. Vogel told an interviewer, “We could have easily become millionaires. We could have sold things and lived in Nice and still had some left over. But we weren’t concerned about that aspect.” Observing that they “weren’t concerned about that aspect” was an understated way for Mr. Vogel to remind us that some things are more important than money. Mr. Vogel added, “We never bought anything because we thought it was important. We bought things we liked. It’s not about price. It’s about feeling.” The Vogels are a very nice reminder that even though the art world is venal beyond description, it still has room for the special few for whom feeling trumps money.
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