In roughly five decades of collecting, Herbert and Dorothy Vogel became legendary figures in the art world.
Herbert, a postal clerk who never graduated from high school, and Dorothy, a reference librarian, used their modest income to acquire an estimated 5,000 artworks that Forbes.com once described as “worth incalculable amounts: hundreds of millions of dollars and climbing.”
The couple packed it all into their rent-stabilized, one-bedroom apartment in New York. Art filled closets and was piled under the bed and stacked high in boxes; they made room for more by clearing out a sofa and other furniture. Roaming around the artworks were several cats with names such as Manet and Renoir, and they had a menagerie of turtles and fish.
The Vogels ultimately gave most of the art away. But now the Bowdoin College Museum of Art has received a major gift of 320 works of contemporary art from the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection, one of the most storied and significant collections of contemporary art in the United States. Nearly 70 artists are represented in that gift, including painters Julian Schnabel and Pat Steir and multimedia artist Richard Tuttle.
“It’s a who’s who collection of modern and contemporary artists,” says Anne Collins Goodyear, codirector of the Brunswick, Maine, museum. The gift “represents unique work by an extraordinary range of distinguished artists, indisputable masters,” she says.
If the names of those masters are unfamiliar to many, that is because the Vogels collected minimalist, post-minimalist, and conceptual art that was outside the comfort zone of many viewers. But Dorothy and Herbert (everybody called him Herb or Herbie) were completely comfortable with the art, and the artists who made it. Unlike many collectors, who rely on art dealers, consultants, and auction houses to guide them, the Vogels often went straight to the artists, many of whom they befriended.
The two lived on Dorothy’s income and spent Herb’s salary (and later his pension) on art. Artists would sell to the Vogels at a discount and on installment. Once, they acquired a collage by cat-sitting for the artist Christo’s cat, Gladys. And the Vogels often took a cash-and-carry approach to their collecting. “If [Herb] couldn’t carry it and take it home in the subway or in a taxi, he didn’t want it,” says artist Lynda Benglis in the 2008 documentary “Herb & Dorothy,” the first of two films about the couple by fimmaker Megumi Sasaki.
Their aesthetic was visionary. “They were the first people to collect Sol LeWitt,” says Goodyear. “They didn’t collect work from artists with whom they weren’t acquainted. [This gift] reflects the long, ongoing conversations between them and the artists.”
The Vogels gave the bulk of their collection to the National Gallery of Art in 1992.
“Their collecting practice was very prescient. They managed to get in at the ground level with some of the most important artists of their day,” says Molly Donovan, curator of modern art at the National Gallery of Art.
But the Vogels’ collection was so deep, Donovan says, and space at the museum, which does not deaccession works, was limited, so the National Gallery could only absorb so much, and it has since passed on thousands of objects, which has been a boon for other institutions.
“We had major examples of [the Vogels’] artists’ work,” she says. “It was an embarrassment of riches at a certain point.”
Even after their initial gift to the National Gallery, “the pace of the Vogels’ collecting continued feverishly,” Donovan says. The National Gallery has helped to facilitate gifts of the rest of the collection around the country.
“The Vogels were pretty visually fearless,” says Jessica May, curator of contemporary and modern art at the Portland Museum of Art. That museum was the Maine beneficiary of the Vogels’ ambitious “Fifty Works for Fifty States” project, launched in partnership with the National Gallery of Art in 2008, donating 2,500 pieces to museums in every state.
“They were ahead of a lot of museums. They were not afraid of art that was challenging. Beauty was not the primary motive. The work is cerebral, witty, and poignant,” said May. “It borrows from a wide idea about what art can be, and it has an immediate deepening effect on the collection it drops into.”
Herb Vogel died at 89 in 2012. And Dorothy Vogel, now 78, says there are many reasons she decided to give this latest gift to Bowdoin, chief among them her friendship with the museum’s co-directors. Goodyear and her husband, Frank, took the positions last June.
The two couples first met in 1996, when the Goodyears were graduate students at the University of Texas and the Vogels mounted a show from their collection there. In 2001, Anne Goodyear was working in the education department at the National Gallery, saw Herb in one of the galleries there, and reintroduced herself. The couples became fast friends.
Late last spring, around the time she and her husband took their positions at Bowdoin, Goodyear met up with Dorothy Vogel for dinner. Since Herb’s death, Dorothy has been clearing the apartment out, giving art to institutions she deems worthy.
“It became apparent that there was a group of objects, in the wake of Herb’s death, that needed a home,” Goodyear says.
Now they have one. The Goodyears plan a summer exhibition to show them off, and some of the Tuttle drawings will provide a pendant to a summer Tuttle print show already in the works. Other pieces, by Steir and Edda Renouf, are already on view.
“I’m so glad the works are going to people I trust, and know they’ll take good care of them,” Vogel said over the phone from her New York apartment.
At Bowdoin, the gift beefs up the holdings of contemporary art (not including photographs and prints) by about 33 percent, according to Goodyear, who declined to estimate the total value of the gift.
Diana Tuite, a curator at Colby College Museum of Art, was a Mellon Curatorial Fellow at Bowdoin from 2007 to 2012. Up until the Vogel gift, she says, the contemporary collection at Bowdoin was “strong, but spotty, which comes with getting disparate gifts.” This substantial and cohesive gift, Tuite says, “catapults them into a whole other league.”
May agrees. “When you get a collection of that size, it’s a game changer institutionally.”
For a college art museum, Goodyear says, the Vogels set a wonderful example. “Dorothy and Herb broke the mold in terms of how collecting is understood,” she says. “How they put together on a relatively modest income one of the great collections demonstrates to students their own agency.”
The gift, which includes works by James Siena, Robert Barry, and Lucio Pozzi, also features pieces the Vogels made themselves, which Goodyear guesses were made in the 1960s. Herb experimented with Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art; Dorothy played with hard-edged abstraction.
“I think they’re quite interesting and wonderful,” Goodyear says. “In this context, they’re interesting in terms of what [making art] means in forming taste as a collector.”
Now, after a lifetime of collecting art, Dorothy Vogel has given almost everything away. The Bowdoin gift is among the last the collection will make.
“I have some art set aside in case of emergency. I hope I never have to sell anything,” Vogel says. “All the artwork is gone, the archives are gone. Then I will have the apartment painted. Unfortunately my last cat died. It’s very quiet without him.”Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com