Art Talk with Megumi Sasaki
Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki with the Vogels in their New York City apartment. Photo by Katsuyoshi Tanaka
Megumi Sasaki doesn’t have the usual biography of a filmmaker. No film school, no hobnobbing with celebrities at Sundance. Instead, in 2002 while working as a field producer for Japanese television on an assignment about artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, she went to the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC to film their exhibition. Noticing all the works shown there were a part of the Vogel Collection, she bought a catalogue about the art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel at the museum's gift shop, hoping to do something with it. Two years later, she once again attended a Christo and Jeanne-Claude event, and the Vogels were there. As Sasaki noted, “I met them and one week later, visited their apartment. Everything started immediately after.”
That “everything” turned into Sasaki’s first feature film, Herb & Dorothy. As a follow-up to her film on the Vogels, she is currently completing Herb & Dorothy 50X50 about the National Gallery of Art/Institute of Museum and Library Services initiative (in which the NEA collaborated, producing the catalogue for the initiative) that sent 50 artworks from the Vogels’ collection to a museum in every state in the U.S. Although she was shortly to travel to Japan, Sasaki took time to discuss with us, via e-mail, filmmaking, her new film on the Vogels, and her interest in art.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts?
MEGUMI SASAKI: In Japan, where I grew up, the most amazing Renoir and Cézanne exhibitions were held on the top floor of the local department store. My mother, though not an artist, enjoyed art and she would often take me to see the exhibitions.
When I was seven or eight years old, she found I couldn't draw well and decided to send me to a private art teacher. Surprisingly, as I learned how to draw and paint, I began receiving many awards, and when I was in junior high school, I took up oil painting. My goal was to attend the special high school for art. However, my wonderful art teacher, whom I loved, was transferred and the teacher that came in his place was terrible. I lost all inspiration for art, and stopped painting altogether. I guess I've been a blocked artist since then.
NEA: What made you want to be a filmmaker?
SASAKI: It was never my goal to become a filmmaker. What made me decide to finally make a film was my encounter with Herb and Dorothy Vogel. When I first heard their story, I was so moved and couldn't believe it was true. It sounded like a fairy tale. I was desperate to tell their story, but I didn't know how. I had produced television documentaries in the past, so my first thought was to propose the Vogels’ story to a television station.
But I found out there had already been too much TV coverage about them. All the coverage, however, seemed shallow to me, just barely scraping the surface. The storyline was always “a postal clerk and a librarian, unlikely art collectors who happened to be lucky enough to build a valuable collection without any money.”
I knew there was a more profound message there, and I wanted to explore that in the form of film because television would have been too restricting with regards to length, format, and timeliness.
NEA: Why do you think the Vogels are important to the art world?
SASAKI: They proved that art is not just for the wealthy or the educated, but is accessible to every one of us. The Vogels never sold a piece from their collection (though the collection was worth millions), and instead gave it away in its entirety to the National Gallery because their wish, as long-time workers of the government, was to give back to the people in the United States.
I believe Herb and Dorothy represent the American spirit of hard work, generosity, and thrift that we don't see often today, and they should be remembered as part of this country’s art history. Their message is needed and can be appreciated now more than ever.
NEA: Could you explain the 50X50 project that you are currently doing a film on?
SASAKI: In 2008, the Vogel Collection had become too grand for even the NGA to house, and the Vogels and the NGA launched the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States, an unprecedented gift project in which the Vogels gifted 50 works to one museum in all 50 states, a distribution of 2,500 total works of contemporary art representing the past half century by 177 artists such as Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle, Robert Mangold, Lawrence Weiner, and Lynda Benglis. This gift project will be the main component of the new film, Herb & Dorothy 50X50.
You'll see the various faces of art communities throughout America, including in cities such as Honolulu (Hawaii), Buffalo (New York), Fargo (North Dakota), Montclair (New Jersey), and Lawrence (Kansas). I hope to depict the depth of their accomplishment, how two civil servants with modest means could provide such impact and access to art for people young and old, rich and poor, throughout America.
NEA: Herb & Dorothy 50X50 seems like an appropriate follow-up---did you always plan to make a second film on the Vogels?
SASAKI: No, I absolutely did not imagine I would make another film on the Vogels. It was an extremely difficult process for me to complete the first film, and when it was over I truly wished to not have to make another film, any film, for a very long time.
When the Vogels and the NGA announced the 50X50 project, Herb & Dorothy was almost finished and I couldn't include it in the film. But it was such an important development in the Vogel story that I hoped someone would document it somehow.
In December 2008, I went with the Vogels to see the first 50X50 exhibition, held in Indianapolis. Believe it or not, it was my first time seeing their collection in a museum with proper lighting, framing, etc., and I was completely taken by the beauty of their collection.
I realized I had not known just how amazing their “eyes” were, and how stunning a collection they had built. The experience was akin to following a famous actor backstage for four years and never seeing him act onstage, and the day finally comes when the spotlight comes on and I see the performance. I finally surrendered to the notion that the “someone” had to be me.
NEA: The NEA’s philosophy currently is contained in two words: Art works. What does that phrase mean to you and your work?
When I hear that phrase, I think of two ways that art works for me. First, I believe that art is about freedom. It liberates us. No matter how tough our job, relationship, or life is, when we encounter art, we forget all of that. Art can bring joy back into our lives.
Second, art is a connection. The world we live in today is so deeply divided: liberal and conservative, young and old, rich and poor, and so on, and art is one of the few platforms that can connect us beyond our differences, and even beyond time.