Silverdocs - "Herb and Dorothy" - June 21, 2008
Silver Spring, MD
(L toR: Megumi Sasaki with Dorothy and Herb Vogel)
Last Saturday afternoon at Silverdocs, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to sit down and watch a more light-spirited documentary given that I had watched several hard-hitting and more serious docs on current events and social issues (all very good by the way). So I went to see Herb and Dorothy, Megumi Sasaki's first film about Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a couple in New York City who have been collecting artwork on a modest living and displaying it in their tiny little rent-controlled Manhattan apartment since they were married in the early 1960s. Their collection became so well known, that the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC ,decided to acquire their entire collection as evident in the film, an entertaining and inspiring story that all are sure to enjoy, even if not art aficionados. Sasaki along with the Vogels and Ruth Fine, Curator of 20th Century Art at the National Gallery of Art, talked about the film during a Q&A. Here are some of the highlights:
Q: When is your next visit to Washington, DC?
Dorothy: I hope we'll come November 16 because the National Gallery is planning something.
Fine: On November 16, we're going to have an interview with Herb and Dorothy and another showing of the film. The collection is being given to 50 museums throughout the United States in addition to the National Gallery. We're hoping in November the book documenting these gifts will be ready to talk about in a bigger length than now.
Q: It's a film about looking and seeing. Were there any particular technical challenges in bringing what might be abstruse works of art immediately clear to an audience on the screen?
Sasaki: I started making this film four years ago and six months into the production, I had this big challenge after I did my first interview with Herb and Dorothy asking them questions like 'what do you like particular about this artists...what's so great about Richard Tuttle?' And the only answer I could get from them was 'because they're beautiful...because I like them!' I was like, oh my g-d, how can I make a film about art collectors who couldn't explain or articulate about the artworks or artists? That was my first obstacle. Then I interviewed Lucio Pozzi, the brilliant Italian artist. He said 'that's why the Vogels are so special...why does art have to be explained and verbalized? Herb and Dorothy only look at the art and that's the way they communicate with art. Isn't that the way it should be?' And that was such a hard moment. That was right before we went to the National Gallery to shoot the main scene of the viewing room. Every cameraman I worked with...I worked with more than a dozen...I told each cameraman to pay attention to Herb and Dorothy's eyes how they look at the artwork. Specifically Herb, when he looks at the art, his eyes get so tense. First I thought that was an obstacle and a challenge and it turned out as a very important overall theme of this film. From that moment I learned that obstacles you have to welcome. You don't make enemies out of the obstacles because for filmmakers we just constantly run into challenges and difficulties in many aspects. After a certain point, I realized that obstacles force you to work harder, to be more creative and I should appreciate that.
Q: One of the things you said in the opening of the film was that there was quite a movement in the late 1960s/early 1970s in New York against the institutionalization of art. Should art be on walls in museums or in people's homes?
Dorothy: I think it should be all over. If you bought it and enjoy it then when you can't enjoy it anymore...you move or die...give it to a museum. I think you can do anything.
Q: Do you agree?
Herb: Absolutely! (Audience LOL)
Dorothy: We buy for ourselves. I'm glad other people enjoy it. I'm glad to give it to museums so they will be able to enjoy it. We first buy for ourselves. We have to like it. We live with it and then it goes on and that's the evolution.
Q: I want to know what happened to your artwork (Herb's and Dorothy's own artwork) that was in the trunk? Is that on display anywhere?
Dorothy: Herb's work is in a trunk on the terrace. I don't know where mine is. I think I gave one to my brother and sister-in-law. I don't know what happened to my paintings.
Q: What are your favorite ways of discovering new artists?
Dorothy: I think we see a work someplace like a gallery, someone's studio or home. We find out who the artist is and we make a connection. As simple as that. A lot of dealers gave us phone numbers and said, 'call the artists yourself.' They realized we weren't going to sell. Because we went with the National Gallery, people knew we were sincere what we were doing.
Q: Tell us some more about sending the works to all 50 states. How is that working? Do you have museums beating down your door to get them?
Fine: We do have museums beating down our door. Unfortunately, when the contactors announced in The New York Times they got one fairly important fact wrong, which was they published that the museums had not been selected when in fact they were. We're hoping by the end of 2009, the first 10 museums will be identified publicly and the gifts are on the way and we're just to send the letters out to the next 40 museums sometime in the summer. We're hoping by November 15, it will all be arranged. It's become a very exciting project. It involves not only the National Gallery, but the National Endowment for the Arts. We're publishing a book related to the project. We're also setting up a website. The idea will be that eventually the entire set of 50 gifts will be available on the Web. It's truly a nationally interactive project in a way that I never worked with anything else before.
Q: Are you able to get out and about these days to continue collecting?
Dorothy: Unfortunately not. My husband can't walk too much. Unfortunately, we're in the process of distributing work, not adding to it.
Q: If you could do it, what would be happening in New York right now?
Dorothy: We really don't follow what's going on too much. I read the newspapers. We get some magazines. We talk to people. I'm very uninformed right now. At one time, as you can see in the picture, we knew what was going on. We were very much involved. That's no longer the case.
Ruth: I just want to contradict a little bit, because the artists have stayed very close in touch. The artists you already have long standing relationships with are still very strong.
Dorothy: People come to us.