ALPism #3

Big things have small beginnings:

Considering the Vogel Collection

by Bryan Faller

Herb and Dorothy Vogel in the National Gallery of Art print study room, 1992. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gallery Archives

Herb and Dorothy Vogel in the National Gallery of Art print study room, 1992. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gallery Archives

Herb & Dorothy Vogel were extraordinarily unusual collectors. They truly loved the art they collected, as well as the relationships they cultivated with the artists they patronized. The world they created for themselves seemed to be made up of studio visit after studio visit with many of the New York artists who would define the art of the second half of the twentieth century. The Vogel’s were different than most collectors in that they were both civil servants and therefore of relatively little affluence. Herb worked for the United States Postal Service. His salary which peaked at $23,000 annually, was used to purchase art. Dorothy was a librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library, and her salary covered the couple’s living expenses.

The Vogel’s lived frugally rarely spending money on anything other than building what many people believe to be one of the great post-1960s collections of Conceptual and Minimal art. Pop and AbEx had become too expensive by the time they started seriously buying, so Herb & Dorothy began collecting emerging artists – many of whom they had befriended. In most cases they collected small works and artists early in their careers before their works became too expensive. Likewise, they had a reputation for being shrewd but fair negotiators often purchasing work from artists who had not yet gained gallery representation.

In terms of how we discuss legacy — i.e., how the work has been curated, how the collection is considered critically by the art world establishment — the Vogel’s are interesting as a case study. Of particular note is how the collection elicited the interest of the National Gallery to maintain their collection in perpetuity. This raises two questions; what about the Vogel’s made their collection so uniquely valuable? And how can collectors or artists ensure that enough money will be available to care for their art once they are no longer living?

It’s interesting that the National Gallery accepted so many works from this single donor without an accompanying endowment. Often it is the case that institutions are only interested in specific works when considering donations from private collectors. In the Vogel’s case, the National Gallery recognized the value and importance of what the Herb & Dorothy had built, the works and the artists turned out to be representationally sampling of a moment — as such it was important to the cultural identity of the United States and to the art historical periods of the 60s-90s.

The National Gallery’s interest in the collection was fortunate since the Vogel’s on their own arguably did not have the resources to set up an endowment to maintain and care for their art in that they spent most if not all of their disposable income on purchasing work. The flip side of this case study is the reality that many collections, despite having work by significant artists, may be lost, suffer damage or go uncared for if there isn’t enough cash to maintain the work appropriately.

How then can artists, collectors or heirs in possession of significant art ensure that those works are cared for and maintained for posterity? A simple answer that could potentially help is for an artist or collector to adopt a savings regimen, something that forces them to save on a monthly basis for the benefit of the maintenance and care of their work or collection. If an artist or collector saved enough money in this manner to maintain their collection and enacted a strategy earlier in their life this seemingly monumental task would potentially be more manageable. By setting aside savings for the sole purpose of maintaining their legacy, potentially there would be resources to care for their art --e.g., by creating a small endowment, paying for a catalogue or publication or even hire a critic to write about and contextualize the work in question.

Big things have small beginnings. If an artist or collector considered how to care for their art early on this seemingly monumental task of managing a collection in perpetuity would potentially be more feasible. An artist, collector or heir could be both asset rich and cash rich (relatively) as they discipline themselves to save throughout their careers to help ensure the availability of resources to execute a legacy plan later in life.