If any art world documentary deserves a sequel, it's the story of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, humble Americans whose masterpiece was their enormous and diverse collection of fine art. When I last wrote about the Vogels, it was after seeing filmmaker Megumi Sasaki's first documentary about them, Herb & Dorthy. After cramming piles of mostly minimal and conceptual works into their apartment for years, among their pet cats and turtles, at the end of the film, they had decided to start the process of donating their legacy to the public.
They had originally wanted the collection to stay together, as did some of the artists whose work they'd collected, and whom the Vogels had grown to know and love over the years. A storyline in the film is about artist Richard Tuttle's reluctance to accept the idea that the collection had to be broken up. Herb Vogel felt the same at first, but after the couple realized that their chosen institution, The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., couldn't house the full collection, they warmed up to the idea of donating fifty artworks to fifty museums across the fifty American states. The film reveals the inspiration behind this idea, the method for divvying up the work, as well as some history about how another large collection was distributed nationally.
Herb & Dorothy: 50x50 is a portrait of many things, and like the first film, it is a touching story of a couple with a shared passion for art. Sasaki highlights subtle, emotional moments in the couple's interactions with each other, and with artists and museum folks. The film is also a portrait of museum culture, and how institutions across the country value their slice of the Vogel collection in different ways. Most importantly, it is a picture of how instrumental art can be in connecting people, proving that there are many different ways to look at a single, handmade object, or any life situation, and that all viewpoints are valid.
With three brief moments at the beginning, middle and end, the film focuses on the impact the Vogels' collection will have on future generations, highlighting sweet little kids interacting with what Dorothy Vogel admits are very difficult works of contemporary art. While jaded adults dismiss the minimalist works as something a kid could do, actual kids seem to really engage with and understand the art on a primal level. One curator points out that adults' dismissive reactions actually point to the works' accessibility and success. I cry at the end of nearly every movie, and this one was no exception; it made me consider how the current generation will someday preserve the Vogels' collection, and how they will lead the next generation in the appreciation of art.
Herb and Dorothy (and cats)
Herb Vogel passed away in 2012, leaving his wife with a lifetime of stories about art and the impact it had on both of them. The couple made art history together. I often think of Dorothy's quote from the first movie about how they were wannabe artists who weren't good enough, so they started collecting instead. A no-nonsense couple, they made a smart decision and donated a scholarly art collection in a way that was equitable across the entire country. But it's hard not to wonder what they would have made over the years if they'd continued to be practicing artists. The film ends with a moment to reflect on that question.