Berkshire Museum

On the Validity of the Vogel Collection

A recent visit to the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) led me to ask several questions– some specific, some general– about little local art museums. I kind of grew up at my little local art-history-science-et cetera museum: the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts—at least, my memories of childhood visits there are extraordinarily vivid and beautiful. Yet the Berkshire Museum was a gallimaufry at best: a mish-mash of dinosaur bone fragments, stuffed owls, plastic figurines depicting the fauna of various climate zones, a few marble sculptures, a handful of paintings, and one mummy. Oh, and the basement level was an aquarium, stocked with marvelous fishes, amphibians, and reptiles. As a little child, I was not the art snob I have, sadly, become, and just adored the place. It was an Aladdin’s cave of wonders. What child doesn’t thrill at the sight of a lion fish, a headless Venus, or the blackened toe of a dead Egyptian sticking from its cerements?

These memories of the Berkshire Museum came back to me as I reflected on my visit to NOMA. Unlike its northern cousin, NOMA does not combine natural history, archeology, and fishes with its art. It contains the cast-offs that the big museums didn’t want: one Picasso, two Rodins, one Boucher, one Andy Warhol sketch, one Calder mobile…. There are a few impressive pieces, such as a series of stunning photographs by Robert Polidori of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, and a glorious Dale Chihuly chandelier. There are whole rooms of anthropological artifacts, and porcelain figurines, and reproductions of period dwelling spaces.

NOMA’s star exhibit is its portion of the Vogel collection. Mr. & Mrs. Herbert & Dorothy Vogel are a working-class couple who decided, upon their marriage in 1962, to collect contemporary art. Little by little, they purchased affordable pieces—mostly drawings—until their collection started to generate attention. Artists helped them out by creating works specifically for the Vogels or by offering them reasonably-priced works. Eventually, their collection grew to the point that they decided to make these works available to the public, divided them up, and donated 50 works each to 50 museums.

Here’s the rub: I do believe the Vogel Collection is a fraud.

Now, now, I know: I am well aware of all the debates about what makes art, “who gets to decide?”, “my-five-year-old-could-paint-that”, and so forth. I know about the Brillo pads. I know about the urinal. I know about 4’33”. I know. I know. I’m hesitant to make my own judgments on such a hot topic, and on such a respected exhibit—but I rebel against calling the NOMA’s pieces “art.” Here are three examples.

a few geometrical lines drawn on paper with colored pencils:

a triangle of steel in the corner of the baseboards:

a series of pieces of notebook paper with a few drops of watercolor paint:

Whatever else it may be, must be, or is, art requires talent, training, and technique. These pieces evidence none of those.

So here is the big question I have about small museums: Are they worth it? They can never compete with the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Hermitage. And there really aren’t enough Degas to go around—OK, maybe there are almost enough Degas, but not enough Michelangelos or da Vincis, for sure—so wouldn’t it be better for the art to have it all gathered in a few places and there displayed to maximum advantage? Why scrape and scrounge to try to get together enough mediocre works to have a collection in every city?

Well, the answers to those questions are obvious. Not everyone can afford to travel to New York, Paris, or Moscow to see the great collections, and everyone should get a chance to view some art. Traveling shows frequently bring all the works of one master to audiences in their hometowns, or offer a few noteworthy masterpieces to a wider viewing public. And some art is better than no art—isn’t it?

So then, here is my NOMA-specific question: Who got duped? The Vogels? The curatorial staff of NOMA (and 49 other museums)? Critics? Reviewers? Me?

And who was the con? The “artists”? The Vogels? NOMA?

Which leads me back around to where I began. I’m not sure that little museums are any more susceptible to artistic deception than big ones (there have been plenty of scandals about cutting-edge exhibits or works at the big-name places), but perhaps they are a bit more desperate to build their collections, offer more exhibits, and generate more press.

Yet the Vogel collection does have other kinds of value, however, beside that of presenting profound and complex masterpieces. Many of the works are preliminary sketches or studies for other works. Many reflect the personal relationships between the Vogels and their artists—which are as important as financial support. Perhaps what this exhibit communicates is the need for community: the need for artists to get to know their public and each other, and to thrive in a space where there is emotional support.

There is another way to do that, however, besides fooling patrons into buying a smiley-face drawn on a sketchpad: make art for a practical purpose. After viewing the Vogel collection, a bit sick at heart (and stomach), I moseyed upstairs to look at the “Pre-Colombian” section, which displayed works from a wide variety of ancient cultures. There were carved stone screens from Cambodia, Zen sayings in calligraphy, African war masks, South American fertility totems, jade vases from China. I wanted to know if my negative response to the Vogel collection was just a matter of eduction: If I had somebody to teach me about the value of those pieces, would I see them as art? Well, I have very little education in the aesthetics of these ancient cultures, so I thought it would be a fair test to look at these works and see if I could appreciate them. So I stood in front of them, gave each one a fair chunk of time, and opened up my mind.

They were beautiful. The stone temple-screen from the 13th-century Khmer Kingdom, for example, as rough and colorless as concrete, yet revealed true artisanship in its complex curves and elaborate detail. Without having any art education in this time period, culture, or people, I yet saw its beauty. It taught me its own aesthetic.

So that is why I am not convinced by the Vogel collection. I imagine that if someone sat me down and taught me a course on the historical value of those pieces, I could come to appreciate them intellectually. But they are not beautiful, and they could not teach me their own aesthetic, which every work of true art should be able to do to the willing mind and eye.

In the end, then, the little museum’s need to pack its empty rooms with anthropological artifacts—pieces made for worship, ritual, work, love, home, or war—meant that it offered me quite an education in the widest possible range of works. And maybe that’s even more valuable than if I had spent the afternoon gazing at the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Well, I don’t know about that. But for those who can’t make it to Italy, an afternoon at your little local museum might make you angry, and amaze you, and teach you as much as it did me.