Rating: Not Rated
Length: 87 minutes
Release date: Sept. 13, 2013
Directed by:Megumi Sasaki
Stars: 3 out of 5
Biographical documentaries are generally snapshots of moments in time. They take a look at a subject from a very specific perspective, limiting themselves to in the breadth of coverage of that subject in order to keep the viewer interested and entertained. Once the coverage is ended, then the subject matter is rarely approached again until the next documentarian gives it a shot. “Herb & Dorothy 50X50” (watch trailer) is the exception to the norm. It’s a return look by the same directory at a subject only a few years after the first documentary has been shown. It’s a documentary sequel that continues the story and takes another shot at explaining the extraordinary philanthropy of art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel.
Director Megumi Sasaki makes it easy to slip into the narrative of “Herb & Dorothy 50X50” without needing to have seen the first film. A quick overview of the first film can certainly help the viewer see why a second documentary proved necessary. In the first film, “Herb & Dorothy,” the audience is introduced to the Vogels, married collectors of contemporary art who began amassing their collection in the 1960s.
The collection began small but quickly grew in size as the couple made the transition from simply collecting the occasional work to patronizing the artists behind the work. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the collection had become so large that the couple decided to donate it to the National Gallery of Art in 1992. The first documentary by Sasaki covered this donation and was shown to audiences in 2000. Unfortunately, the National Gallery hadn’t the room to display such a large art collection, and many of the works remained in storage.
In 2008, the National Gallery and the Vogels decided to disburse the collection in order to allow more of the works to enter into public view. This disbursal consisted of donating fifty works of art: a single one to a museum in each of the fifty states across America, attracting the attention of Sasaki once again for the production of the second film “Herb & Dorothy 50X50.”
This second documentary follows the donations to eleven exhibitions, beginning with the first one at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. During the course of the film, the viewer is treated to a beautiful slideshow of contemporary art covering a variety of artists and genres, but simply displaying the art alone wouldn’t be enough to warrant a return visit by Ms. Sasaki to the Vogels.
What truly set the stage for the film are the visits with the various artists who have benefitted from the Vogel’s passion with art over the years, along with conversations with the Vogels themselves. The Vogels quickly made the leap from collector to patron early on when they began collecting. The couple loved the time they were able to spend with the artists, encouraging their work in person as well as through the purchases they made.
According to many in the film, the Vogels soon became well known to the art community. They lived at one of the epicenters of contemporary art, Manhattan, and soon their little apartment space was being taken over by the art collected. The Vogels talk freely about their obsession with art. The two are seen coming across as a lovable pair with Dorothy clearly taking the lead in any conversation.
A film that focused only on the exhibitions of the art as it’s presented to various museums would quickly have lost its luster. Sasaki deftly avoids this issue through artist interviews. Sasaki manages to coax interesting conversations out of artists both well-known and still struggling to make a name for themselves.
Those artist conversations are often controversial, showing the passion behind the art that attracted the Vogels to patronization. Along with artists, Sasaki also gets the opinions of a few of the Museum directors and curators about the importance of the collection, as well as its immense worth.
The conversations with the Vogels, though revealing, are primarily archival in nature. In “Herb & Dorothy 50X50,” the gruff voice of Herb Vogel is silenced by his death in 2010 before the end of filming, and Dorothy’s chipper cadence takes on a saddened tone as she discusses the later exhibitions without Herb by her side. She still refuses to discuss the monetary value of the artwork being donated, which has been placed in the millions of dollars range. Instead, she speaks of the joy of collection, and of being a part of the art scene through six decades of change. Sasaki’s return to the subject matter is timely and insightful, giving a second snapshot to view alongside the first and enjoy like the slightly matched pair that they are.