Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki at BMFI's screening of Herb and Dorothy.
Herbert and Dorothy Vogel began collecting art in the early 1960s, and over the next thirty years the couple gathered an astonishing assortment of Minimalist and Conceptual art. Living on her salary as a librarian, the couple spent his postal clerk paychecks entirely on expanding their art collection. New pieces had to follow two rules: they had to be affordable and fit in the couple’s tiny, one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Before they moved their collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1992, every corner (including the bathroom and the kitchen) was filled with over 4,000 works by more than 200 artists. Featuring art by such luminaries as Sol LeWitt, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Lucio Pozzi, and Lawrence Weiner—many of whom the couple also consider friends—the collection had appreciated considerably and was worth millions of dollars, but this remarkable couple never sold off a piece or treated the collection as a financial investment.
Megumi’s film captures how these unorthodox collectors see the art they love. Herb & Dorothy received the Golden Starfish Award for the Best Documentary Film and Audience Award from the 2008 Hamptons International Film Festival, as well as Audience Awards from the 2008 SILVERDOCS Film Festival and the 2009 Philadelphia Cinefest. The film was also named one of their “Best of Fest” of the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2009.
Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki on Herb & Dorothy:
How did you get involved with the Vogels?
I was filming a piece for Japanese television on a Christo and Jeanne-Claude exhibit and I saw the Vogels’ names everywhere. Someone told me who they were. I hoped to do something with that story. I went downstairs and bought the collection catalogue, but didn’t do anything with it then. One and a half years later I met the Vogels in person at an event for Christo and Jeanne-Claude in New York. I introduced myself to them and vaguely told them an idea for this project—I knew that it had to be visual, TV or film. One week later I was invited to their apartment. That was September 2004.
Did you know it was going to be such a big project when you started?
Before I started, I didn’t know anything about art or filmmaking. I thought I was making a small film about two small people. I thought it would take six months. [Underestimating the project] was a huge mistake—it took four years and almost bankrupted me. Herb and Dorothy taught me a lot about art, passion, and how to have passion for life. It’s a story about two small giants.
Where there any stories that didn’t make it in the film? Did it change during editing?
I filmed over 120 hours of footage. All of the major stories made it into the film. However, when I first came up with the first cut, there was a lot of talking by curators and art historians and professionals. I didn’t know a lot about minimalist and conceptual art, and was relying on them to explain it. We did a test screening, and people hated it. It was almost a textbook kind of film about art. I learned that if I wanted to talk about minimalist and conceptual art, it had to be through Herb and Dorothy. That was hard though, because they don’t talk about why they like a piece of art; they just think it is beautiful. It is in their faces, how they see art. It was difficult to figure out how to show that.
How did your extensive background as a journalist and TV producer impact how you approached Herb & Dorothy, your first feature?
It did two things. First, it helped me to tell the story. I didn’t want to make just an art film, I wanted it to appeal to the general public. So in a way it helped me that I wasn’t part of the art world, so I could just tell the story from a lay person’s point of view and break down the language. I didn’t want to assume that the audience had prior knowledge of art, like most art documentaries. The second thing is that when I look back on it now, it looks like an extension of a television piece. I think that it’s maybe too informative, explaining too much, forcing my view.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a short sequel. The Vogel collection donated fifty works to fifty states as part of a nationwide gift project in art. I’m looking at the reaction of local museums, how the gifts are affecting them, and how local people accept them. I’ve been working on it since the end of 2008; it’s a matter of funding now.
Herb & Dorothy is available for sale and on Netflix. Visit the film’s official site for more information: http://www.herbanddorothy.com/.
Megumi Sasaki produced and directed Herb & Dorothy. Born and raised in Japan, she began her career as a freelance journalist whose big break came when she covered the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s highest-circulation newspaper. Megumi then spent four years at NHK, Japan’s sole public broadcaster (akin to the BBC), as an anchor, news director and reporter for Ohayo Nippon, a popular morning news program. As a freelance television documentary news director and field producer, she developed programs for Japan’s premiere documentary series, NHK Special, as well as for commercial networks including TBS, TV Asahi, Nippon Television and TV Tokyo. In 2002, Megumi founded her production company, Fine Line Media, to facilitate her new interest in feature documentary projects, of which Herb & Dorothy is the first.