Film Review: Herb & Dorothy 50x50

Documentary is more limited than its predecessor but enjoyable for art lovers.

Following up her well-received 2008 documentary Herb & Dorothy, Megumi Sasaki's Herb & Dorothy 50x50 shows how a middle-class Manhattan couple with a world-class collection of contemporary art wound up distributing it to museums in every state in the U.S. By design more narrowly focused than the first film, the doc will appeal to the slice of the art community that is fascinated by questions of legacy or by the egalitarian nature of the 50x50 project; more casual art fans will do better finding the first film on DVD.

Dorothy and Herb Vogel were, respectively, a librarian and a postal worker. But in Manhattan in the ’60s, they were among those gallery-goers who quickly embraced what new minimalist and conceptual artists were up to. Befriending artists at the start of their careers, they bought as much as their salaries could stand. They only bought what would fit in their one-room apartment, so the collection—astonishingly, they amassed nearly 5,000 pieces—consisted mostly of work on paper. In footage of their “Hoarders”-worthy dwelling, invaluable paintings fill shelves, are stuffed under the bed, and stack up in any floor space not occupied by pets.

They eventually donated the collection to the National Gallery of Art, but the inability of one museum to show it all led to a novel plan: Fifty museums across the country would each be given fifty works, each collection a cross-section of the Vogels' taste.

At the end of the film, we learn that Herb (who died in 2012) was initially against the idea of splitting the works up. Sasaki misses the opportunity to let him discuss his objections and his change of heart (we hear more on this front from Richard Tuttle, one of the Vogels' favorite artists), and instead spends most of her time watching the couple interacting with staffers at the museums receiving their gifts.

For urban moviegoers who do most of their art appreciation in major hubs like New York and Los Angeles, these visits to regional, sometimes underfunded institutions are interesting in themselves: We hear museum directors talk about challenges, watch docents guide children and conservative older visitors through galleries of often "difficult" art, and see what happens when a museum you've given 50 paintings to simply closes due to lack of support.

The democratic nature of the project and its exploration here jibes with the story of the Vogels, who (to put it mildly) don't conform to the stereotype of the filthy-rich art patron. Sasaki also highlights the couple's loyalty to artists who either never achieved financial success or grew obscure after a moment in the sun. (As we all do, the Vogels had occasional lapses of taste—as a segment on their Mark Kostabi holdings makes clear.) Poignant final scenes of Herb's physical decline and Dorothy's response to his passing (she clears 50 years' worth of art out of their apartment and says she won't be buying more) do nothing to diminish the sense of a life very well-lived.
The Hollywood Reporter