Wednesday 19 August 2009


The story of New York art collectors Dorothy and Herbert Vogel has to be one of the most endearing in 20th-century art history. Dorothy, a librarian, and Herbert, a postal clerk, have acquired over 4,000 works together since marrying in 1962 (they marked their engagement with a Picasso ceramic).

The couple made the decision to live off Dorothy's income and devote Herb's income to buying art. Their story reflects that of several other collector-couples I know; the enduring relationships of mutual support and enjoyment with artists, the early adoption of new artists and trends, and the utter lack of regard for the question "where the hell it go?".

In 1992 the Vogels entered an agreement with the National Gallery of Art, and since then over 1000 works from their collection have either been donated or promised as gifts to the NGA. In 2008 an even bigger scheme was announced: The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States. 2,500 works from the Vogel's collection are being distributed through the programme.

The 50x50 website is one of the most enjoyable art sites I've seen. Only 350-ish artworks have made it up there, but the way the Vogels' story is told through text, image, video and audio is lovely, and interlinking between artworks, artists, and institutions is nicely handled.

I spent quite a lot of time clicking around - more than I spend on the average gallery site, digitised collection or exhibition website. I think this was because the scope is broad - nearly 50 years' of art - but the narrative is tight, and you can take one without the other. The search by date feature I found particularly appealing, perhaps because it's tied to people's lives. (I buy a bit of art every now and then, and when I look around the house, each piece is tied to a person, event or milestone - that roadtrip, that birthday, that job change) . The site obviously has a lot of content to add, but there's something delightful about it, without being the least bit hokey - kinda like I imagine the Vogels to be.


staplegun said...

On 50x50 I would have loved to also see the Vogels' comment about each work on its page, like your event/milestone/person memories.

I guess in this web 2.0 world we live in now we expect there to be a comments stream after each work, this would be web 1.5 - there would be comments, but just from the curator.

Some may prefer that the narrative is separate to the exhibition, but surely the exhibition is tightly coupled to the couple (!), so you're really there to look at these works through their eyes, so I can't see the point of making the exhibition separate and sterile (except of course for the fact that they probably haven't captured a comment for each).

Courtney Johnston said...

Two points - the second frivolous, the first less so.

First, this isn't an exhibition website in the sense of, say, the great Colour exhibition site MOMA did last year. As I understand it, the gifting agreement has a clause that requires the works to be shown together in an exhibition within the first 5 years of the institution receiving the gift. The website has been built to record these exhibitions plus - I think - record each collection item's exhibition history (which is important for people who decide to take on a massive catalogue raisonne project).

Secondly, Megumi Sasaki made a film about the Vogels in 2004. In a Washington Post article she's quoted as saying

"They didn't articulate why they like this particular artwork, why did they collect a certain artist...The only thing they said was, 'It's beautiful. I like it.' How can I make a film about art collectors who don't talk about art?"

So individual comments from the Vogels may have gotten a little repetitive ....

staplegun said...

If only art collectors thought (and wrote it down) like archivists/librarians... :)

I was kinda surprised at myself for thinking 'so what?' about the site. Presumably it works for an audience of art lovers, but as a casual art consumer who knew nothing about it, it seemed like just another digitised artworks site with yet another 'look,-I'm-fancy' Flash-driven interface - I would have left before clicking on the 'about' part if you hadn't alerted me to it.

I know it wasn't possible, but just imagine how it might draw attention-challenged folks like me in if there WAS a personal comment on each page. This single, themed, passionate voice would, dare I say it, animate it by telling a story... in 'real time' (rather than on a separate, disjointed page).

Btw, I'm not dissing user comments, it's just they are a double-edged sword - they add heaps of value, but also add heaps of time wading through them all. Maybe a halfway point would be to be able to choose a user and only see their comments on each work?

I would extend this to thinking how great it would be to have the curator's comments on any online collection's item pages... dreams are free!