Giving like Herb and Dorothy

They weren’t born rich. They didn’t get rich either. Quite the opposite in fact. But they are major American philanthropists. They’re Herbert and Dorothy Vogel.

I hadn’t heard of the Vogels until a couple of weeks ago when I was scanning the shelves of my local video shop for something to watch (why do we still call them video shops?!) and a title caught my eye: “Herb and Dorothy. The incredible true story of a postal worker and a librarian who built a world-class art collection”.

Using Herb’s salary alone (they lived on Dorothy’s) the Vogels managed to amass what is described in the film as “one of the most important contemporary art collections in history”.  They did this using just two selection criteria:

  1. they had to be able to afford the work, and
  2. it had to fit into their rent-controlled one bedroom apartment in Manhattan!

While the artists represented in the collection now reads as a who’s who of major Minimalist, Conceptual and post-1960s artists, the Vogels bought the works when no one else was interested, which meant they were able to buy them for virtually nothing. They bought passionately and compulsively for almost 30 years and by the early 90s their apartment was busting at the seams with works of art estimated to be worth millions of dollars.

In 1992, after being courted by some major art museums and made many lucrative offers for their collection, the Vogels gifted it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. But what motivated them to do this? Why did they gift it? They may have been asset rich but in real terms they had no money!  They explain it as being because they’d both been government workers and they liked the idea of giving it to the American people.  Gorgeous!

Amazingly, they then went on to continue to collect art…..mainly using the small annuity the National Gallery had given them as a token of thanks for their gift (I love their story!!). Once again, the artworks outgrew the Vogels’ capacity to properly look after them and they decided to make another major gift to the American people. Unfortunately the National Gallery was unable to accept any more works, so instead they brokered an initiative which in the last couple of years has seen the distribution of 50 Vogel collection art works to 50 art museums around the US.  NY Times Vogel 50×50

Clearly it was all about the art and giving others the opportunity to gain as much from it as they had: learning from it and getting a huge amount of pleasure out of experiencing it. It’s such a human story and it’s so inspirational!

In the last week Australia has celebrated two major philanthropic gifts – one from John Kaldor and one from The Felton Bequest. The Kaldor Family Collection of 200 international contemporary art works was unveiled in its new home at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The collection, which John Kaldor gifted to the Gallery in 2008, is valued at AU$35 million and is the single largest donation of art to an Australian public gallery. John says that his benefaction was driven by the fact that he sees art as an essential part of life and that he felt selfish having the art in his own home where only he and family were able to see it. As he has demonstrated via his commissioning of major public art works in Australia since the 1960s, he has a deep commitment to enabling public to learn from, have access to and enjoy art. It’s a hugely important gift.  ABC Kaldor Gift feature

The Felton Bequest was left to the National Gallery of Victoria by Alfred Felton on his death in 1904. He left £378,000 in trust (about $30 million in today’s money) for the NGV to use for the purchase of works and objects judged ”to have an educational value and to be calculated to raise and improve public taste”. Hmmmm. Since his death over 15,000 works of art valued at over $2 billion have been purchased, accounting for 80% of the NGV’s collection, and growing….the purchase and commissioning of a further 170+ art works was announced yesterday on the Gallery’s 150th birthday! It’s such a shame Felton didn’t give in his lifetime, so he could have seen the very value of his benefaction. In fact with such a categorical goal to improve public taste, I’m surprised he didn’t want to be around to know if he’d achieved it!  NGV at 150/Felton Bequest

It is these gifts and those of the Rockefellers, Guggenheims, Besens, D’Offays and Duffields to name but a few, that give so much to the public in terms of their capacity to create opportunities to learn and give enrichment and pleasure. Long may they continue! The Vogel’s story makes it feel possible that it could be any one of us that can give a gift which makes all the difference. I wonder if I have it in me to “do a Vogel“?!

If you want to see the trailer for Herb and Dorothy directed by Megumi Sasaki, click here: Herb and Doroth 2008 movie

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