Despite never having set foot on Bowdoin’s campus, Dorothy Vogel’s recent donation of 320 works of contemporary art to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art marks one of the most significant contributions in the museum’s history. Perhaps even more impressive than the collection, though, is the story of the couple responsible for it—that of Vogel and her late husband, Herb.
With the modest salaries of a reference librarian and a postmaster, the couple acquired thousands of works of modern and post-modern art. The Vogels often recognized talented artists before the rest of the art world, and forged friendships with many now-famous artists as a result.
But even as the estimated value of their collection ballooned into the hundreds of millions, the Vogels never measured its worth in financial terms.
“They did not think of art as an investment. They thought of art as rich with ideas that could create conversations with other artists, with other collectors, with loved ones near and far,” said their longtime friend and co-director of the museum Frank Goodyear. “For them, the value, the monetary value, was less interesting,”
Vogel’s contribution will increase the museum’s collection of contemporary art by 33 percent. She could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.
Despite the significance of this addition, museum co-directors Anne and Frank Goodyear say they are not concerned with the museum’s capacity to house and display the new works."The Vogels tended to collect works on paper and they tended to collect works of art that are relatively small in scale," said Anne.
The donation includes the work of 70 different artists, many of whom "are considered sort of masters of minimal, conceptual post-minimalist art," said Frank Goodyear. Some of the most recognizable include Richard Tuttle, Pat Steir, Edda Renouf, Julian Schnabel, James Siena, Martin Wong and Michael Lucero.
The museum already has four pieces from the Vogel collection on display in its abstract painting and printmaking exhibit and the Goodyears say they have plans for several exhibits that would heavily feature art from the donation.
One of these exhibits will feature print work by renowned postminimalist Richard Tuttle, whose work will also be featured this year in the Tate Modern Gallery in London and the Pace Gallery in New York City. Although this will not be the first time the Bowdoin Museum of Art has displayed Tuttle’s work, the new additions from the Vogel Collection will expand the exhibit significantly, making it totally unique.
"What’s great about our project is that it’s the first and only exhibition which brings together his print work which is a major part of his artistic legacy," said Frank Goodyear. "Bowdoin is going to be very much a strong voice in the larger conversation about this artist."
Tuttle’s reputation testifies to the prestige of the donated artwork. The depth and quality of the works is particularly impressive considering the Vogels amassed the entire collection on their modest salaries. As appreciation for modern art grew, many pieces became incredibly valuable, but the Vogels never sought to turn a profit.
"I think what was more important to Herb and Dorothy was to collect work that they felt expressed something new about creative talent," said Anne.
Despite the Vogels’ relative indifference to the financial value of their artwork, the couple seemed to share uncanny abilities when it came to selecting art that would become iconic.
According to Frank Goodyear, the Vogel collection is particularly interesting for the way it "captures a particular field of the New York art world at a particular sort of moment in time."
The collection eventually grew to 4,782 pieces and in 1992 Herb and Dorothy made a substantial donation to the National Gallery of Art. The couple also started a campaign to donate 50 works of art to a museum in each of the 50 states. The recent donation to Bowdoin simply continues their long-standing commitment to increasing access to contemporary art.
"They value education very highly and recognize that the collection could do a lot of good here in midcoast Maine, especially in a community such as this one which has so many committed, insightful people interested in the arts," said Anne Goodyear.
Though the Vogels never visited Bowdoin, the couple counted as long-time friends Anne and Frank Goodyear, the current co-directors of the Museum of Art.
"Anne and I shared many wonderful afternoons that turned into evenings with the Vogels," said Frank.
The two couples met in the mid 90’s when Anne and Frank were graduate students at the University of Texas. They kept in touch after graduation and maintained a warm friendship rooted in their mutual love of contemporary art.
"Dorothy and Herb were endlessly interested in the work that was on the wall but also in our response to it," said Frank. "We had some wonderful hot debates about different issues and different artists, and that’s what they treasured so much about the collection, that it gave them a connection with people."
The Goodyears hope the artwork inspires similar connections at Bowdoin.
"The collection is a reminder of what great art does to stimulate conversation," said Anne. "And that was something that Herb always talked about—that great art would get people talking to one another."
Additionally, Goodyears hope the collection will foster academic growth.
"There’s so much student and faculty research waiting to happen," said Frank. "I can just see contemporary art classes digging into this material and trying to learn more about some of these artists."
Finally the Goodyears hope that the Vogels’ generosity and personal story will inspire students.
"Very few people would have predicted that a postmaster and librarian could put together a world-class collection, but they did it," said Anne. "I hope the collection helps to remind students as well as the rest of us that really and truly you can do anything you put your mind to if you have the passion and the follow through."