Film Review: ‘Herb & Dorothy 50X50’ by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins


Millions of art-lovers worldwide were moved by the award-winning film, Herb & Dorothy (2008), the fascinating documentary on art collecting and the personal lives of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. If that film whets your appetite for more collected art from Vogel’s monumental art collection, then want no longer.

Dorothy and Herbert Vogel.
Dorothy and Herbert Vogel.

The follow up film, Herb & Dorothy 50/50, picks up where the captivating, active collecting lives of the Vogels left off, and takes viewers on an artistic road trip with two ordinary people who accomplished the extraordinary. The sequel is filmmaker Megumi Sasaki’s absorbing, essential, second documentary on the discerning collectors and it captures the last chapter of the Vogel’s remarkable avant garde life and their generous gift to the nation.

Sixteen years after stunning the art world and making headlines in 1992 for donating the entirety of their 5,000 piece modern art collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Herbert and Dorothy Vogel launched a national gift project – The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States – with the NGA to give a total of 2,500 artworks to museums in all fifty states.

The accessibility of living your dream is the heart of the Vogels’ life mission. Their generous actions dramatize and fully realize the belief that art is for anyone and for everyone. Herb & Dorothy 50/50 is a film about living one’s life as a work of art. More than another documentary on art, the film is a mastery on passion and living your life with purpose – a charge that can be appreciated by all.

Life is a found object . . .

Having worked their whole lives as civil servants, the Vogels wish was to give back to the people of the United States. Though their collection was now worth millions of dollars, after collecting for nearly a half a century, the couple never sold a single piece. Too large for the NGA, or any one museum to contain, The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States project was conceived and gives fifty works from the Vogel Collection to one museum in each state in the United States. Once completed all of the works will be listed on The Vogel 50×50 website with photos and artist information. Currently 1,818 pieces of the 2,500 contemporary artworks in the Collection have been published on the site.

Herb & Dorothy 50/50 is an amazing story of passion and almost fanatical dedication to the pursuit of beauty and art, and raises various questions on art, art collecting, and what it takes to support art in today’s society. Museums from the start have been founded by collectors and they depend heavily on collectors for their content. A museum is a collection of collections that has been donated by a diverse group of collectors, and the range of a museum’s offerings depends upon the people who support it. The ambitious and awe-inspiring idea behind The Vogel 50/50 was for the Vogels to be able to give each state a “mini Vogel collection,” As the individual 50-piece collections arrive at one museum to the next, viewers see “Herbie” and Dorothy’s epic dreams come true. The Vogel’s home grown gift of more than fifty years of art collecting constitutes one of the largest gifts in the history of American art.

Minimalist abstract art was new in the 60s. But when the Vogels started collecting, the art scene was moving away from abstract expressionism as the dominant mode in American art and moving toward minimalism and conceptual art. The minimalist, conceptual artist Richard Tuttle is the best represented artist in their 5,000 piece art collection with thirty-three works on paper. Developing a relationship with the artists was integral to Herb and Dorothy’s pursuit of art and art collecting. “Knowing the artists are certainly as important – maybe in some cases more important – than the works itself,” said Herbert Vogel. Their collection of mostly minimalist and conceptual art has been called one of the most important post-1960s art collections in the United States.

. . . Home is where the heart is.

Opening minds to contemporary art was always of importance to the Vogels and their dedication to building a collection began in the 60s when they married. In a cramped, rent controlled one bedroom apartment with seventeen turtles, seven cats, fish, but no children, the Vogels determined early that their collecting priorities would be above those of personal comfort. Attracted to minimalist abstract art, the couple had only two restrictions to guide their art purchases:

1. It must be affordable. (They never discuss the costs of their purchases. Dorothy, says “there has to be some mystery,” although she admits some of the works were given to them.)

2. It has to be able to fit in the apartment.

By living off of Dorothy Vogel’s Reference Librarian salary, and then using Herbert Vogel’s earnings (which peaked at $23,000 annually) to acquire and collect Contemporary Art, the humble efforts of a retired postal worker and his librarian wife built a unique, world-class art collection.

As Herb & Dorothy 50/50 follows the art journey of the“mini Vogel” collections arriving to museums throughout the United States, midway through the film there is a stop at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art where 42 boxes of the Vogels art papers of collected correspondence since 1980 is introduced. The Archives were fascinating scenes for me because I knew very little before this film about the treasury of this space. It’s amazing to learn that there is a collection of the Vogels’ process – all of the behind the scene writings, correspondence with artists, and the curating and collecting personal archiving has been retained. Volumes of files on the many Contemporary artists that the Vogels were interested in are also found here . . . Everything. They collected and saved art clippings, news articles, invitations, and all the many art and gallery openings attended over the years. The magnificence of these collected paper volumes are another invaluable art collection in itself, and once again access and exploration into a new world has opened. It’s art history at your fingertips. I can’t wait to visit!

More narrow in focus than the first film, the sequel spends substantive time with the many museum curators, artists, and art patrons who have been affected by the Vogel collection. There is a surreal, undescribable joy viewing the varying surprising, emotional, and unexpected reactions of the curators and the museum patrons as the view and talk about The Vogel 50/50 art collection and the legacy of the Vogels’s gift. However, the break up of the 5,000 piece collection didn’t occur without controversy and misgivings. Toward the end of the film, it’s revealed that in the beginning Herbert was dead set against breaking up his collection, one that he viewed in its totality as a work of art. “It’s art history,” said Herbert Vogel, “The collection – what we did then – is art history.” Favorite artists, like Tuttle felt the same. But over time, with Dorothy’s urging to the “sensibility of the project” and the fear of the art work being stuck at the bottom of a museum basement, they both have had a change of heart. “The break up of the collection brought it all together,” said Dorothy, “this way the works are more accessible.”

Herb & Dorothy 50/50 is a positive extension of the American art world living testament that the Vogels’ partnership has created and is a visionary outreach of their dreams. The Vogels’ passion, their lives, and their legacy are all lessons for generations to come to the power of love and commitment, and their contributions to art are the gifts that keep on giving.

Art is for anyone. Art is for everyone.


Running Time: 86 minutes • Not Rated

DC area showtimes can be found here.

Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki, Richmond based artist Martin Johnson, and curator Ruth Fine will host a Q&A following the 7:20 pm showTONIGHT at West End Cinema.

Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki will host a Q&A after the 2:20 pm show TOMORROW at West End Cinema. – Saturday, October 5th and will introduce the 4:20 pm show.

The Vogel 50/50 website.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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