Money Trumps Art? Not for the Vogels.

I saw this statement somewhere recently (I think I was watching television): “Art is Mute when Money Talks.”  Seeing that sentence so soon after watching Robert Hughes give his opinions about art and the market in Mona Lisa Curse, resulted in a moment pregnant with meaning. 

Aside from being his usual crusty and amusing self, Hughes belittled the “taste” of a hardcore Warhol collector by telling him that Warhol “was one of the stupidest men I ever met.”  Hughes, however, is right about the negative impact of rising prices.  Artworks have become celebrities courted by the rich.  Art is drained of potency when pieces by Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons bring in multi-million dollar figures at auction. 

Investment in art is an insidious business.  It prices art out of the reach of museums and custodial public institutions, making it inaccessible to a broader public.  All that is left in the public domain are photographic reproductions.

A contrast to this bleak tale of obscene wealth is another story recently broadcast on The Independent Lens (PBS).  “Herb & Dorothy,” a film by Megumi Sasaki, documents art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel.  They are atypical in the art world.  Despite the fact that they were of modest means (she was a librarian and he worked for the post office), the Vogels used their extra cash to purchase art that they liked, attending New York openings and visiting artists’ studios, befriending and encouraging them. 

 They stuffed their small apartment full of conceptual and minimalist works and amassed one of the most significant contemporary collections in the world.  And what did they do with it when they could no longer safely keep it in their home (curators would shiver in horror at the risk of fire or leaks from the Vogels’aquariums)?  Did they sell it off at a huge profit?  No, they allowed it to be exhibited at numerous locations and then, in 1991, donated it to the National Gallery of Art.  People can now see it at a venue where no admission fee is charged.  In fact, the National Gallery could not accommodate all of the pieces (multiple moving vans were required), and efforts were made to distribute some of the collection to other public institutions.  Did the Vogels remain artless?  No, they have continued to collect.

The Vogels’ commitment underlines the joy of purchasing art not as an investment, but as a lifelong pursuit that is rewarding and enriching.  They had to make sacrifices to do it and ultimately they wanted to share it.  These are the kinds of collectors we need, not the kind who store their works in bank vaults until they’ve quadrupled in value (remember it’s not the artist who benefits from this increase), but the kind who cherish art as a gift to society, and that deeply understand and value the role of artists.

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