Herb & Dorothy is like the most uplifting, inspiring, beautifully shot episode of Hoarders ever.
Herb & Dorothy 50X50
Imagine this: You’re watching an episode of Hoarders about a couple who live in a tiny one-bedroom Manhattan apartment and have stuff piled so high and tightly that there’s no possible way they could cram in more. The kicker is, this “stuff” isn’t junk; it’s a massive collection of priceless, significant modern works of art. They obviously can’t dump it all in the trash. What do they do with the overflowing bounty of art history? They share it with all of us, of course.
Herb & Dorothy 50X50 follows Herb and Dorothy Vogel–a postal clerk and librarian, respectively, who amassed a collection of over 5000 art pieces over 45 years from renowned artists like Chuck Close, Richard Tuttle, Lynda Benglis, and Robert Mangold–as they share 50 works with one museum in each of the 50 states, an unprecedented project entitled The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States. It’s a staggeringly heartwarming act of generosity and inclusiveness that’ll surely endear you to the art-world legends. Herb passed away in 2012, but his legacy lives on in his wife and their amazing nationwide contribution to the art world.
In 1992, the Vogels gave 2500 pieces of their collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., but even the government didn’t have enough space for the expansive collection. The gallery’s curator, Ruth Fine, suggested that the couple instead disperse the art across the country, which led to the launch of the 50 state project.
Director Megumi Sasaki follows the cute elderly couple as they visit several of the museums displaying or getting ready to display their collection. Getting the collection up and running in all 50 states is a huge project, and though we only see Herb and Dorothy visit about a dozen or so museums, Sasaki successfully conveys the enormity of the endeavor. They travel from New York all the way to Hawaii, and we see just how appreciative and touched these museums are to receive the Vogels’ gift. Sasaki captures a large number of the works on camera, and gives them about as much screen time as the Vogels, for better or for worse.
Sasaki also examines the notion of what makes a work of art “great”: In the Hawaiian museum, for example, Sasaki interviews a few museum-goers, asking them about the collection. One guest amusingly confesses that he prefers art that’s more “finished” than the minimalist dots, smears, and solid shapes prevalent in the Vogels’ selection. One of the museum attendees then provides the fascinating observation that children are much more receptive to artistic minimalism as they aren’t yet conditioned to identify what constitutes “great art”. The insight is thought-provoking, but I only wish more of it had been provided by the Vogels, whose philosophy on art we surprisingly learn very little about.
Dorothy and Herb (who, in his old age, is more of a listener than a talker) are clearly wonderful people, and their natural humility shines through, never coming off as self-involved despite their names being displayed on dozens of museums across the country. What’s regrettable is that we don’t get a real sense of their deep passion for art, be it because they’re too humble to completely bare their souls on camera, or Sasaki didn’t find it integral to the story. Sasaki doesn’t seem interested in exploring the dramatic elements of Herb & Dorothy’s story, which is understandable on certain levels, but makes the end product feel a bit saccharine and momentum-less.
In the film’s most moving and resonant moment, we see the wheelchair-bound, typically silent Herb spring to life as he directs museum attendants in arranging an instillation meant to mimic the Vogels’ Manhattan apartment as Dorothy looks on in adoration. It’s an incredibly touching thing to watch; I just wish moments like these weren’t so few and far between. Nevertheless, Herb & Dorothy is still like the most uplifting, inspiring, beautifully shot episode of Hoarders ever, the perfect ending to an artful American romance.