You don’t have to be rich to start buying art; Herb Vogel never earned more than $23,000 a year. Born and raised in Harlem, Vogel worked for the post office in Manhattan. He spent nearly 50 years living in a 450-square-foot one-bedroom apartment with his wife,
Dorothy, a reference librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. They lived frugally. They didn’t travel. They ate TV dinners. Aside from a menagerie of pets, Herb and Dorothy had just one indulgence: art.
In just four decades, they assembled one of the most important private art collections of the 20th century, stocking their tiny apartment floor-to-ceiling with amazing artwork including paintings by Roy Lichtenstein. The Vogels had no formal training in art collecting. They didn’t aspire to open a gallery or work in museums. They bought art the way any amateur collector shops: for the love of the individual pieces and the thrill of a good deal. Both frustrated artists, their collection became a work of art in itself.
By the mid-1960s, the couple began collecting in earnest, visiting dozens of galleries and studios each week, and becoming what artist Chuck Close called “the mascots of the art world.” In making purchases, they functioned as a team. Herb, the impulsive Dionysian, searched for art “like a truffle hound,” said the artist Lucio Pozzi, who has more than 400 works in the Vogel collection. Dorothy, the Apollonian librarian with the encyclopedic memory, was more passive, hanging back and calculating the financial realities. They had only a few criteria: The work had to be affordable; it had to fit in their apartment; and it had be transportable via taxi or subway. Not part of the equation? The artist’s reputation. “We bought what we liked,” Dorothy said. “Simple as that.” And they continued to lead their double life—racing from studio to studio to gallivant with artists and to scout their next big purchase every night, while keeping their passions private from their work colleagues.
Still, assembling such an incredible collection on such a tiny budget required a system and a method. Herb’s salary went solely on art, while Dorothy’s covered their living expenses. The couple never dealt with art dealers or galleries, preferring instead to negotiate directly with artists, often arriving at studios with cash in hand. Passionate about unknown talents, they often helped them to develop their practice.
When they spotted something beyond their means, they’d find a way to make the purchase: they’d buy on credit; they’d forgo a vacation; they’d even throw in cat-sitting to sweeten a deal. And the artists loved them for it.
It wasn’t long before the artwork overtook their home. By all accounts, the 450-square-foot apartment on East 86th Street was more of a storage facility than a place to live. The Vogels’ collection gradually replaced all their furniture save the kitchen table, some chairs, a bureau, and the bed, which concealed dozens of drawings by Richard Tuttle and Lynda Benglis.
Visitors cracked their heads on clay Steve Keister sculptures hung from the ceiling and discovered typographic texts by Lawrence Weiner on the bathroom wall. And while they stashed the pieces wherever they could, Dorothy has repeatedly tried to squelch one persistent rumor: the Vogels never stored art in their oven.
But they also never sold a thing, despite the fact they could easily have been millionaires. Herb retired from the post office in 1979 and, naturally, used his pension to continue buying art.
But the increasing size of the collection threatened to overwhelm the Vogels, and in the 1980s, they were forced to admit that their apartment could no longer contain it. They began meeting with curators and evaluating their options. They knew they wanted to donate their collection instead of selling it, and they liked the National Gallery, which is free to the public and maintains a policy against deaccessioning objects, meaning the collection would never be sold. In 1990, the year Dorothy retired, the Vogels followed through on their promise: Art handlers from the National Gallery transferred an astonishing 2,400 works from the Vogels’ tiny apartment, in a move that required five 40-foot trucks. In fact, unloading the works from the trucks and into the gallery tied up the museum’s freight elevators for weeks!
Realizing that the Vogels hadn’t invested for their future, Jack Cowart, the museum’s curator of 20th century art at the time, paid the Vogels a small annuity in exchange for their generous donation. But instead of saving the money for medical expenses or splurging on a better retirement, the Vogels couldn’t help themselves: they immediately started collecting more art! It wasn’t until 2009, when Herb’s health began to fail, that they ceased collecting: “it was something we did together, and when Herb was too ill to enjoy it, we stopped,” Dorothy said. Herb died in July 2012, at the age of 89. Dorothy’s job now, she says, is to make sure people don’t forget the collection she and her husband built, which is considered one of the most important art collections of the 20th century.
This article is edited and adapted from the original piece which appeared in mental_floss magazine.