Selections from famed New Yorkers’ treasures help frame the story of how New York became the center of the post-World War II art world
When Brenau University opens its new “Manhattan Gallery” March 29 at the recently renovated Brenau Downtown Center in Gainesville, Ga., a key component will be a showcase of the works from the famed Dorothy and Herbert Vogel collection of modern art.
The Vogels are best known as the unassuming postal worker and librarian who on their civil service salaries in their modest New York City apartment amassed what art critics have called one of the greatest personal collections of paintings, drawings and sculptures in modern America. The collection includes more than 5,000 works, many from some of the most important artists of the 20th century.
Brenau University currently holds in its permanent collection more than 100 works donated by the Vogels, and 81 of them will be on display permanently at the new gallery. Representatives from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., custodian of the entire Vogel collection, also notified the university on March 19, that 26 more pieces are en route – one by abstract expressionist Giuseppe Napoli and 25 by Herbert Vogel himself.
Dorothy Vogel will be on hand for the official unveiling and dedication of the gallery and other programs in Gainesville and Atlanta March 28-29. She will sit for a question and answer session March 29 following the 2 p.m. free public screening at Brenau University East campus in Gainesville of the film Herb & Dorothy 50 x 50, a documentary about the Vogels’ contributions to art.
“Herb and Dorothy Vogel created a legendary legacy,” said Brenau University President Ed Schrader. “Theirs truly is an American story, and Brenau is honored to be a part of its telling and retelling with this permanent exhibition. And I have been personally blessed by knowing them both.”
Herbert Vogel, who died in 2012, was a World War II U.S. Army veteran who worked nights as a clerk sorting mail for the United States Postal Service until his retirement in 1979. Dorothy Vogel worked until her retirement in 1990 as a librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library.
The two met in 1961 and married a year later. Collecting art, says Brenau University Gallery Director Melissa Morgan was “something they always did, and they did it with a passion.”
With no children, they lived frugally off Dorothy’s salary and used Herb’s income, which peaked at $23,000 a year, for their acquisitions. Art covered the walls of their one-bedroom rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, filled closets and nestled under the bed. However, this for the Vogels was not an investment but merely their acquiring art they wanted to live with. They bought only works that they liked, and usually only pieces they could cart on the subway or in a taxi. Their tastes primarily ran to abstract expressionism, minimalist, post-minimalist and conceptual art.
According to their website, “what they may have lacked in material wealth was more than matched by their knowledge and passion for art, their delight in discovering new work, and their commitment to particular artists whose work moved them… The art community’s awareness of the limited funds the Vogels could devote to their acquisitions brought them considerable admiration, as did their enthusiastic response to a range of contemporary practices, which included work others found difficult to appreciate…”
The Vogels provided moral and modest financial support to relatively unknown artists who would later receive international acclaim. Because they knew many of the artists personally, they usually bought directly from them – occasionally in installments.
Sometimes they bartered, as in the much-publicized story of their acquisition of a collage of The Valley Curtain by the now internationally famous environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude in exchange for the Vogels’ cat-sitting for their pet, Gladys.
Despite their lack of intent to amass an extremely valuable art collection, their passion became a phenomenal investment.
“Many millionaire collectors wouldn’t have the nerve to buy the kind of cutting-edge art that the Vogels embraced enthusiastically,” Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski wrote in 1994. The Vogels, Sozanski continued, created “one of the most remarkable American art collections formed in [the 20th] century, one that covers most of the important developments in contemporary art.”
Collection Goes Public
Although the art was worth millions, they never sold any of it. In 1992 they arranged with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to become custodian of all of their artwork because the gallery is open to the public and does not charge admission. And, since no one museum is capable of displaying such a vast assemblage, the National Gallery also agreed to assist the Vogels in a program of donations to other museums and exhibitions around the country.
In 2008 the couple commissioned the The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States along with the National Gallery of Art, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. That program donated 2,500 works to 50 institutions across 50 states – including to Brenau University’s academic partner, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
The 81 pieces from the Vogel collection that will be displayed at the new Manhattan Gallery at Brenau Downtown Center include works from renowned artists such as Giuseppe Napoli, Daryl Trivieri and Hank Virgona. These works portray still-lifes, nudes, landscapes and various other themes created in a wide array of media: watercolors, oils, acrylics, charcoal, ink and mixed media.
Brenau art professor Mary Beth Looney, chair of Brenau’s Art & Design Department, says that the university’s relationship with the Vogels dates at least to 1998 when they appeared jointly on the Gainesville campus for a specially curated exhibition of works by women artists represented in the Vogel collection. (See the YouTube video of the Vogels’ participation in a panel discussion about artist Lisa Bradley at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yyEPanZoEY).
“By then they were already world famous because of the 1995 feature on 60 Minutes,” Looney said. “So we were honored to have them as our guests, and we will be honored to have Dorothy Vogel back this year.” (See the 60 Minutes video at http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-vogels/.)
In addition to Dorothy Vogel’s appearance at the film screening, she will also attend the Brenau Gala that starts at 6 p.m. on March 29 – the official opening and dedication of what Brenau President Schrader calls “a living gallery” at the Downtown Center. The facility primarily was renovated as a home for the university’s new school of physical therapy and other health science programs. But, similar to the Vogel’s apartment, it also will have art throughout in public spaces as well as in corridors around classrooms, laboratories and offices.
“The Vogels loved for people to see their art treasures,” said Schrader. “Brenau will carry on that tradition at the Downtown Center Manhattan Gallery.”
On March 28 and 29 Dorothy Vogel will participate in discussions with students and faculty on campus and attend a preview of the Vogel donation to the High Museum at that institution’s print room.
Brenau East is located at the Featherbone Communiversity complex, 1001 Chestnut St. SE, Gainesville.
Brenau Downtown Center is located at 301 Main St. SW in Gainesville.
To learn more about the Vogels, their collection and their history, visit http://vogel5050.org/.
All images below courtesy of herbanddorothy.com