Herb & Dorothy: The Art World Is For Everyone
If you had never heard of Herb and Dorothy Vogel, you could be forgiven for assuming that these were characters pulled from a movie script: a postman and librarian whose one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn surreptitiously housed one of the most celebrated art collections on earth sounds like something Charlie Kaufman would come up with. Their story, however, is a true one, and as such, a remarkable moment in American art history.
These two Jewish New Yorkers spent their lives in a frugal existence, slowly filling their diminutive home with nearly five thousand works of art by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Sol LeWitt, and Roy Lichtenstein, along with dozens of others. The story of these ‘proletarian art collectors’ is a touching reminder that art truly is meant for everyone. The blue chip art galleries of the world would have us believe that art is a rarefied commodity, reserved for the elite. Herb and Dorothy remind us that art is a human right, that art is for everyone, that art is integral to life.
The Romantic Beginnings
Herbert Vogel was born in Harlem, New York, into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Herb settled into a career sorting mail for the postal service, which he would go on to do until his retirement in 1979. Dorothy, née Hoffman, was born in Elmira, New York, and, after studying library science, moved to the city to work for Brooklyn Public Library, where she similarly remained for decades. The couple met in Elmira in 1961 and married just one year later. In fact, their relationship with modern art began in earnest around the same time as their romance; their first major acquisition was a ceramic sculpture by Pablo Picasso, which they purchased to celebrate their engagement.
In the years following their marriage, the Vogels paid their bills using Dorothy’s income from the library, while investing Herb’s entire salary to acquire art. They attended galleries and museums on a daily basis. As one contemporary art critic noted, “There was nothing that they didn’t see.” It is difficult to say whether it is in spite of or due to their modest socioeconomic standing and decommercialized views on art that the couple was able to amass such an important catalogue. What is certain is that, although Herb and Dorothy were famous as one of the largest purchasers of new art in New York, they did not view the work they purchased as financial investments. Instead, they only purchased art that they enjoyed and wanted to display in their own home. Another restriction on their selections was the size of the artwork. In true New York fashion, Herb and Dorothy never owned a car, so additions to their collection had to be compact enough to carry on the subway or in a cab.
How Herb And Dorothy Inspired IPMM Founder Evan La Ruffa
Herb and Dorothy’s lives are a fascinating moment in American history, but there is more to learn from this pair than a simple art history narrative. It is telling that a couple who made less than $100K per year has amassed a more important art collection than any of the heirs and heiresses, moguls, and celebrities who have taken to collecting over the last century. I mentioned ‘blue chip’ earlier, but did not explain its meaning. Blue chip is a term, derived from poker, which is used to denote work by an artist whose work has been shown to appreciate consistently in value and, thus, its status as a good investment. Since the Renaissance, art has been used as a way for the intellectual elite to store and transfer wealth, more tasteful than treasury bonds, but functionally the same.
This is how the mainstream art market continues to function today, and Herb and Dorothy show the multiple importance of undermining the boring and homogeneous landscape of the arts as investment. When Evan La Ruffa, IPMM founder, first saw the documentary Herb & Dorothy ten years ago, a light bulb went off for him. That is how we came to be what we are today: a self-sustaining nonprofit, free from the strings attached to grants and foundations, whose focus on getting money into the pockets of artists runs in tandem with our commitment to providing art and education to all Chicagoans.
In the beginning, IPMM was a blog out of Chicago with a growing following. Shortly after a group of artists who had been featured on the blog gave original artwork to us as gifts, Evan watched Herb & Dorothy and decided to make these works the basis for a nonprofit. To us, art is versatile: it is an investment, collateral, a tool for outreach, fundraising, and education, and a public good. This is the principle behind our Shared Walls program, and has allowed us to flourish here in Chicago, and even expand our work to Detroit!
Our story is one of many great examples of how an education in art and art history can help all of us grow big ideas. That’s why education is so important to us: we want to teach the next leaders of community-based, integral organizations like ours, like Herb and Dorothy taught us in turn. If you are interested in sponsoring a school, or in bringing Shared Walls art into the school in your community, learn more here.
Here at IPMM, we are dedicated to working for the good of our backers, businesses, artists, and communities, and bringing these groups together to create a stronger, brighter city. Without spreading an understanding of art and art history, how can we start that conversation? That’s why we’ve got tons of history and theory on our blog. Check out this article on prehistoric art, for example, or this one on the seminal Chicago art collective, AfriCOBRA.
There is so much to learn in this world, and we are happy to be on this journey with you: the teachers, the artists, the students, and the community members. And we’re doing it all for the love of art, just like Herb and Dorothy.
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