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Herb and Dorothy 50x50

The big give

Herb and Dorothy 50x50

The feature-length film Herb and Dorothy 50x50 is about the passion and vision and benefactions of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, who on the salary of a postal clerk built up a fabulous art collection during the Minimalist/Conceptualist/Abstraction years of the late 20th century, and ultimately donated it to art galleries across the country, 50 works each to 50 galleries, one in each state.

Benefactions to the galleries and also to artists whose careers they fairly enabled, through their purchases and general sponsorship. One of the galleries, the Albright-Knox. One of the artists, Buffalonian Charles Clough, who is featured in the film.

The film will begin a run at the Amherst Theater on Friday, November 8. Clough along with film producer and director Megumi Sasaki and Albright-Knox chief curator Doug Dreishpoon will conduct a Q&A session after the 7:30pm showing, and Clough will introduce the 9:30pm showing, and will conduct Q&A sessions following the 5:30pm and 7:30pm showings on Saturday, November 9.

The mechanics of the donations are understandably complicated and not particularly well explained in the film. Apparently, the whole collection was first donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, but proved too big for even that institution, or just that somebody had a better idea: Redistribute it from the National Gallery to galleries throughout the nation.

Along the way, substantial footage on negotiations and installations at a dozen or so galleries in as many states, and substantial discussion by artists and gallery operators about the artwork in the donation—how it came to be, how to show it—and ordinary folk gallery visitors, who are often puzzled, as often delighted, by what they see on display. Galleries as diverse and in diverse locales as the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota, and the Honolulu Museum of Art in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The best footage is actually from Hawaii, not excluding the hula dancers. Totally seeming to justify the idea of spreading the wealth of the collection around. Gallery visitors were asked to say candidly what they thought of some of this admittedly pretty difficult work. With regard to some of the items—including Richard Tuttle’s somewhat inchoate-looking works consisting of a few stabs of watercolors in the middle of sheets of lined notebook paper—one nice lady allows, hesitatingly, that “I like the ones that look a little more finished.” One skeptical gentleman avers that “You can’t just do anything and put a frame around it. That doesn’t work.” Another lady comes up with a version of the inevitable: “Some of it looks like my grandchildren could have done it.”

Stephen Jost, the director of the Honolulu gallery, sees opportunity in the “anyone can do it” response. “It speaks to the accessibility of the work,” he says. “Something about the work allows this access point, where they see themselves in the process of the making” of the work.

The original idea—to donate the entire collection to the National Gallery, to keep it all in one place—was Herb’s idea, and he had to be talked into spreading it around. Dorothy says she had a part in the persuasion project. But if it’s important for people to see the works of artists like Clough and Tuttle and Martin Johnson, it’s important for the people in Honolulu and Fargo to see them, not just people in Washington or New York, or who can travel to Washington or New York.

(The argument overall seems strangely reminiscent of the fight a few years back about the de-accessioning of the bulk of Albright-Knox pre-modern holdings. If you want to see the statue of Artemis and her dog, just go to New York, to the Met. Fine if you can do that. Most of the residents of Buffalo can’t, however. Most school kids in Buffalo won’t get to the Met on school outings.)

The Vogels were childless—but the artists they in effect adopted became their family—and lived on her salary as a city librarian and used his salary as a postal clerk exclusively to purchase art. Soon the collection threatened to overwhelm their modest Manhattan apartment, but somehow never did.

The couple are shown young and old, but mostly with Herb in a wheelchair. Most of the time he doesn’t say much, but becomes voluble making suggestions and giving directions on hanging the art at one of the galleries. At one point he turns to Dorothy and says, “What do you think, Dorothy?”

“You’re the expert,” she says.

“Bullshit,” he says.

Watch the trailer for Herb and Dorothy 50x50

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