You might remember the inspirational couple Herb and Dorothy Vogel from Independent Lens‘s 2009 film Herb & Dorothy. The pair assembled one of the most important post-1960 art collections in history on their modest civil-service salaries. Sadly, Herb Vogel passed away this July just before his 90th birthday.
Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki had grown close to the Vogels. Sasaki started her journalism career as a freelancer reporting on the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then, she worked in public broadcast in Japan before forming a documentary production company in 2002, Fine Line Media. As a documentarian, she has primarily followed the story of Herb & Dorothy. Her second documentary film currently in post-production, Herb & Dorothy 50X50, shows how 2,500 pieces of the Vogel’s art collection have been distributed to museums throughout the United States. The website Vogel5050.org catalogs 1,453 of those artworks, including a collection of cats and turtles (the Vogels cherished both as pets).
Sasaki said she speaks with Dorothy on the phone every day.
I’m so sorry to hear about Herb’s passing. How did you react when you heard the news?
We were sort of prepared for it. We knew it was coming. I was in Japan, and Dorothy sent me messages on Skype. He was hospitalized right after I left for Japan in June. [Then], Dorothy said he entered a nursing care home and she wanted me to come back as soon as possible, and send out messages to all the artists to come and say goodbye to him. So I did that at the end of June. I knew it was coming, and realized that he may be leaving this world now.
In a way, he was withdrawn for the end of his life. His eyes were deteriorating, it was hard for him to see. Things got more and more difficult for him, so he may be in a better place right now. He didn’t suffer, it was a totally natural death. He was very happy at the end he was surrounded by family and friends, and Dorothy visited him every day seven to eight hours. I came back June 30th and came straight to their nursing care home to see Herbie. I was so glad that I could see him when he was still well. He was not eating for almost three weeks. He just kept losing weight, not hungry. I knew it wasn’t a good sign.
What were the most valuable lessons you learned from Herb?
Do what you like — life is short. Pursue your passion and interests to the fullest extent. First to find your passion — a lot of people don’t know what their real passion is. First search for that, and follow and live with it to the fullest extent.
How is Dorothy doing?
Dorothy is doing very well. She’s dealing with the situation very bravely and very strongly. I think they’ve been together for half a century, so she said she just couldn’t believe that he’s gone. I visited her apartment several times after he passed away, but I still feel his energy in his apartment. It’s like, maybe he’s just sleeping in the bedroom and he’ll crawl out while we’re having dinner. And Dorothy feels the same way.
How often do you keep in touch with her?
We talk at least a few times a day right now. I try to see her once every one or two weeks. Tomorrow [Aug. 16] is Herb’s 90th birthday. He was so looking forward to being 90. Unfortunately, he’s only short a few weeks. I’m having lunch with Dorothy and Paula, her sister, and we’ll celebrate his birthday.
Of the 50 Works for 50 States, what museums and galleries have been showing their collections?
Around half of the museums have already had a show. In many museums: Indianapolis Museum, Buffalo, Old Red Knox, Philadelphia Museum, Delaware Museum. At Vogel5050.org, they keep all the project information there.
How do you think owning art has enhanced Herb & Dorothy’s lives?
It was a celebration and a curse because they collected too many. I think the collection itself became a work of art for them. It became more than just art works, it has its own life and character. I’m sure it did enhance their life, but toward the end it was difficult because it grew too big. It was a little baby and grew into a monster that they no longer had control over. So they had to let go and find a way to handle it without breaking it down. It looks fragmented with 50 states, but it’s together. It’s a concept.
Do you buy art? How do you shop for it?
I never have bought art. All the money I have goes to film. My life the last couple of years, any of the disposable income goes to money to make film. I’m not the person who has the sense of owning things materialistically. I like to live simply and I don’t like to keep too much stuff in my apartment.
I started feeling that’s kind of an excuse. I’ve been promoting this film to support art all over the work, and me not owning any art. It’s almost like an evangelist telling people to believe in Jesus but not reading the Bible himself! Supporting art, for the most part, it’s about money. Museums close when they don’t have enough money coming in. Otherwise, art doesn’t exist in this capitalist world. I started thinking maybe I should participate. I don’t own, I’ve had art works given to me, but I haven’t paid my hard earned money to buy art. I know that if you buy, we see artworks in a different perspective than just visiting museums and looking at them.
Do you think selling art somehow corrupts it?
I don’t think so. I think it’s just a part of the process. Herb and Dorothy never criticized anyone making a business from art, that’s what so great about them. Herb says, “Artists have to live, the dealer has to live, we all have to live.” The money transaction is an important part of the process. If artworks could be switched to real estate, gold, jewelry, it doesn’t matter. There are people who use art as commodity, but it’s not the only thing.
Do you think art collecting bears any resemblance to filmmaking?
There may be some aspects to it. It’s a very different process. You collect, you have to examine it, chop it in pieces, and reorganize it together. The film is about sharing with as many people as possible.
For Herb and Dorothy’s pieces, it’s wonderful that they’re sharing with the public. That’s what made it so beautiful: making it accessible. But I know a lot of collectors who don’t think that’s an important part of the process. I don’t think there’s a lot of resemblance between the two.
What are your favorite documentaries from the past year?
Pina, Better This World, and Bill Cunningham New York
What are you working on now?
This is a follow up to my first film Herb & Dorothy. It’s called Herb & Dorothy 50X50. We follow the project and how their gift has impacted each of the communities: Hawaii, North Dakota, and people who have little access to avant-garde art and how those people react to it. It has the sense of a road trip. I feel like this may be one of the only documentaries with so many museums throughout America. You see the problems museums are having in America today, and weave it into the story of their life.
My last film was about the way they collected and how they started collecting. What happened 16 years later? [At the museums], kids are much more excited than adults. Really, without preconceived idea of what the art should be. It’s difficult to grasp for adults, and the kids seem to get really excited, their imagination just goes really wild. The art work is untitled, and the teacher will ask, “Why is the art work untitled?” And they’ll come up with their own title on the piece. It’s been fun to see how kids respond to the art. Adults appreciate it too, but they say, “Well, my grand kids can do that. You can’t just put anything in a frame and call it art.” Some people are positive, some people negative. It’s wonderful to see how art can be so accessible.
What was the most difficult story you’ve produced?
This is my second film. I worked in TV, but I wasn’t a producer in charge of creating a story. This film seems to be more difficult than the first film. I’m working really hard. It’s hard to create a story arc. It’s twelve museums around the country, but each museum needs to bring in something new to the story, and how do we tie everything in together? It’s a very difficult challenge.