Art collecting has always been one of the dearest pastimes of high society and industrial dignitaries. Over the centuries, some of the heaviest weights in the art world have been known by such illustrious names as Medici, Rockefeller, Guggenheim, Sainsbury and Getty. Also some of the finest contemporary art collections have been amassed by modern business moguls, showcasing their excellent taste and class in addition to an extraordinarily successful corporate career. Advertisement agency founder Charles Saatchi is credited to have built up the market for contemporary art in in London of the 1980s. Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv, the brainchild of Ukrainian businessman and philanthropist Viktor Pinchuk, is the favourite spot for hoards of art aficionados, with far longer entrance queues than any night club in the city, shedding a warmer light on an oligarch whose fortune was made when marrying the daughter of Leonid Kuchma, then president of Ukraine. Francois Pinault, founder of retail company PPR, is the private owner of one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the world, as well as of two museums, Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, both in Venice, and the auction house Christie’s. By way of keeping up with the Joneses, his arch rival, Bernard Arnault, the richest man in Europe and founder of LVMH, set up in 2006 the Fondation Louis-Vuitton pour la création, whose acquisitions will be exhibited in a museum expected to open in 2012 in Paris.
Luckily for art lovers that cannot compare their means to the above-mentioned, patronage of the arts does not have to be confined to those that have had the good fortune to be born into a dynasty or be one of the grandees, as shown by the refreshing and inspiring story of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. This couple have managed to amass one of the largest and most valuable collections of contemporary art with very limited resources at hand. Indeed, Mr and Mrs Vogel are both of modest origin and worked as a postal clerk and librarian respectively, before retirement. Nevertheless, by devoting one of their salaries to the purchase of mostly Minimalist and conceptual pieces of emerging artists before those gained the attention and recognition of the art market, they filled their tiny, rent-controlled, Manhattan apartment with some 4,700 pieces by artists such as Sol LeWitt, Will Barnet, Lynda Benglis, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Edda Renouf, Pat Steir, Richard Tuttle, Donald Judd, Chuck Close, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Indeed, as the collection expanded, the Vogels made space for their precious acquisitions by getting rid of all furniture saving a bed and a kitchenette.
In a 2008 documentary devoted to the collector twosome, Dorothy explains that her spouse has always been passionate about art and after taking her to the National Gallery of Art in Washington for their honeymoon, “looking at art became something we did together”, spending their free time in museums, galleries or artists’ ateliers. Before long, they also started purchasing works of chosen artists over long periods of time, and, by the same token, constructed deep relationships with «their» artists and become themselves personalities in the New York art world.
The Vogels never sold a single piece of their collection, estimable at millions of US dollars. Instead, they donated it to the National Gallery of Art and fifty other American museums, because as former public servants they felt they wanted to give the art back to the public where it could be enjoyed for free.
text by Aleksandra Eriksson Pogorzelska, Ponyhof Gallery assistant
More on the documentary «Herb & Dorothy» (available at Amazon.com)
More on the Vogel collection at the National Gallery of Art