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Volume 16, Issue 47 - November 20 - November 26, 2008
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Fifty Works for Fifty States

Easton’s Academy Art Museum is Maryland’s only museum to get 50 pieces from a world-famous collection

by Sandra Olivetti Martin

True or false? Art makes you think in different ways. Here are two ways to put that proposition to the test.

One, try doing some art yourself. Novice art students (me among them) say they feel as if their brains were working in different, relaxing, wave patterns.

Two, imagine the brains of the artists who made — and sold — the art works in these images. Is that different enough for you?

If not, there’s lots more — artists and art works — where these came from.

The pictures you’ve pondered are a fraction of Maryland’s fraction of the thousands of modern and contemporary drawings, paintings and sculptures collected by Dorothy and Herbert Vogel over 30 years.

Forty-eight more have already been delivered to the Academy Art Museum in Easton, Maryland’s heir to the Vogel’s generosity. Deliveries of equal count are coming to the 49 other states as part of the Fifty Works for Fifty States project.

Different is the simplest way of describing all 2,500 works in the 50/50 project — as well as the other 2,000 or so works the Vogels stuffed into their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Minimalist and conceptual is the complex term, but it may take an art collector to figure out what that means.

Different, too, but not at all minimalist, is the Vogel’s story, as told at the National Gallery of Art at this week’s kick-off of the 50/50 project.

All that art was bought on Herbert’s salary as a postal clerk, Dorothy explained as artists, curators, collectors and art appreciators listened to the story of the biggest — at least in scope — single art gift ever to come to us Americans.

Collecting gave purpose and a second life to the couple, who lived on Dorothy’s salary as a librarian at Brooklyn Public Library. Starting in the 1960s, they prowled galleries and artists’ hangouts, sparking careers and making friends.

By the 1990s, they were famous, courted by the National Gallery, which acquired a chunk of their collection through a part-purchase, part-gift arrangement. They had a major show at the Gallery in 1994.

The Vogels have donated 832 works to the Gallery and promised 286 more. That’s in addition to the 2,500 works that make up the 50/50 bequest.

The scope of their collection, the size of their apartment — art was everywhere, even hanging from the ceilings — and aging led to that enormous project. At 86 and 73, the couple — who had never sold a piece — feared for the fate of their life’s work. No single museum, not even the National Gallery, could hold it all. Thus was conceived the plan to divide it among the states so it could be seen by the largest possible audience — while maintaining its integrity as a single collection in name and in an on-line catalogue:

Across the states, the lucky museums range from large (like the St. Louis Art Museum) to small. One of the small is the Academy Art Museum in Easton, which began in 1958 as a community arts organization that’s concentrated on building its collection only for the past 15 years. “Affordability, accessibility and a desire to stay current,” guided the museum’s focus on 20th and 21st century art, says curator Brian Young.

The museum’s specialty and history of working with the National Gallery made it a logical choice. Still, its selection was a surprise.

“The first I knew was this summer, when I opened a Federal Express package that said we were selected,” museum director Christopher Brownawell told Bay Weekly.

The 50-work windfall is far bigger than the small museum could afford over the course of many years; last year’s purchases totaled four.

It’s been uncrated and is now available to students and scholars; exhibition is planned for 2010.

Even after such a gift, the Vogels still have a house full of art, including a collection to pay for their long-term care. “I used to say open-heart surgery,” Dorothy said, “but I think Medicare pays for that now.”


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