‘Herb & Dorothy 50x50’ Review

Herb & Dorothy visit first 50X50 exhibition at Indianapolis Museum of Art-1 copy

Imagine if all film sequels began life as an idea for a DVD extra. That is sort of the case of origin for Megumi Sasaki’s Herb & Dorothy 50×50, a follow-up to the director’s popular 2008 documentary Herb & Dorothy. The earlier film, a profile of the legendary art collectors of the title, Herb and Dorothy Vogel, ended with a note about how in addition to donating most of their collection to the National Gallery of Art, the couple would be gifting 2,500 artworks to 50 museums around the country, divided evenly to one institution per state. Five years later, we get the full story on that announcement with this update on the lovable characters and their unbelievable collection.

After a brief montage of clips seen in the first doc to re-acquaint us with the Vogels — or introduce them to those viewers who skip the original — Sasaki begins to take us on a kind of travelogue to see the variety of regional museums that has each received 50 pieces of mostly minimalist and conceptual art. Among them is the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which was the first to exhibit their gift. Sasaki joined the couple out for the event, initially in order to film merely a bonus supplement. We reunite with them, too, and find them a little bit older, Herb now in a wheelchair instead of walking with a cane and also talking even less than before. Dorothy is as much the spokesperson as ever, though, and also just as genial as we saw previously. It’s not surprising Sasaki wanted to return to them more and more, and it’s hard to complain or disagree with that urge.

Other places the film takes us to — some of them also visited by the benefactors — include Montana’s Yellowstone Art Museum and the Miami Art Museum in Florida, and in the mix we can see a real distinction with each area’s art scene, their community’s aesthetic preferences and scope of interest and the museums’ allowance or lack thereof for more diversity through the usual acquisition process. We’re also treated to scenes of kids on field trips learning about the works and of adult tourists who have trouble with many of the more difficult pieces to come from the couple’s surplus. At one point a museum director addresses the constant rejective response of “anyone could do that” by claiming this is a sign of the art’s identifiable accessibility, which is a very interesting and optimistic way of looking at it. I’m not sure I believe that it’s true, unfortunately.

But this is a film about the importance and the appreciation of art, by way of the Vogel’s own appreciation. It’s about seeing the ways children and grown ups engage with the works, often very differently, with the former obviously displaying greater imaginations in swift montages where we hear individual comments and analyses about the same works. An idea to have exhibits of the 50×50 selections accompanied by and embedded within a recreation of the couple’s apartment and furniture and prop cats allows people to see it as they did, sort of. Not everyone can have the eyes and sensibility of Herb, not even his wife, but we can try. Additionally, for those of us who’ve seen the Vogels in their home surrounded by their collection, these exhibits are funny for where the sentiment of the gimmick trumps the authenticity.

There is no denying, thanks to this documentary, Herb and Dorothy’s tremendous contribution to the culture of this country. They are substantial to a number of institutions we encounter that benefit greatly from the gift. Some are struggling and can really use the fresh inventory to appeal to both members and the public. One recipient, the Las Vegas Art Museum, had to close shortly after getting its 50 pieces because of insufficient donation money coming in during the financial crisis (its part of the Vogel collection, we learn, was transferred to a nearby gallery at the University of Nevada). The film even provides a comparative context for their deed in a brief look back at the famous Kress collection, which was made available to the public during the Depression and was one of the foundational building blocks of the National Gallery when it opened in 1937.

On the other side of the coin, in this film we meet more artists who weren’t just historically supported and boosted by the Vogels (like Christo, this time sadly interviewed without his wife and collaborator, Jean-Claude, who died in 2009) but those who also continue to be aided by the visibility they’re gaining through this 50×50 program. There’s Martin Johnson, for example, who has to spend most of his time running a plumbing products company, and Charles Clough, who becomes very emotional on camera in gratitude for the Vogels pulling his notoriety way back up again. This isn’t a time in which the great contemporary artists are all making a living from their works, and we’re reminded of how necessary the Vogel’s patronage has been and how big a void there will be when they stop collecting and gifting.

While Herb & Dorothy was focused on the life of the Vogels and the irresistibly folky tale of their modest means and phenomenal accumulation of modern art, the sequel is about their legacy. And it’s therefore rather melancholy in spite of it being overall a celebration of their philanthropy through this program as well as their monumental donations to the National Gallery and the Smithsonian archives, not to mention a celebration of the arts in general. We watch as the couple says goodbye to their adopted “children,” basically, and understand how hard it must have been to agree to the widespread split up of the collection, the whole of which many saw as itself a kind of masterpiece.

A sadness especially hangs over the film if you’re aware that Herb Vogel died last year. Watching him on screen, so quiet and depreciating in health is pretty heartbreaking, and once the film gets to an epilogue acknowledging the loss there’s an even more direct sorrow to be felt. Between his and Jean-Claude’s departure since the original documentary and the fact that the collection’s donation involves a relative sort of letting go (and the recognition that the donation was made in the first place because the couple were growing old, and so there’s the reminder that Dorothy will die at some point, as well), plus the economic troubles of artists and institutions today, and the apparent problems of relevancy for younger generations, it’s a film steeped in grievous and daunting elements.

Yet Sasaki does her best to keep an elated and hopeful tone while also managing a number of different angles to the story that come awfully close to making the film seem unfocused. There are indeed a few scattered moments, but in the end all the parts do thematically add up to something very poignant and very separate from the original film. It’s not a repeat of Herb & Dorothy. But as is the case with almost any documentary sequel, there is still the feeling of it being too much of a “where are they now?” special.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.