The bathroom wall of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel’s rent-stabilized apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where they’ve lived since 1963, happens to have been decorated years ago with a pencil drawing by the artist Sol LeWitt. Another piece of his—a black wooden floor structure—sat in the living room, next to works by superstars like Chuck Close and Donald Judd. Until a few years ago, when the Vogels donated the bulk of their artworks to the National Gallery of Art, the walls in the bedroom were crowded with pieces by Joseph Beuys, Robert Mangold, and Richard Tuttle. Whatever fit went up; what didn’t, from a collection of more than 4,000 items, went under the bed or spent years crammed into closets.

The Vogels’ apartment was arguably its own conceptual installation: a perfectly ordinary, cramped New York space filled with one of the best private collections of contemporary art in the city, or maybe anywhere. Herbert, 87, and Dorothy, 74, originally aspired to be artists themselves. As newlyweds, they rented a studio on Union Square, took classes in Abstract Expressionist painting, and started buying art from friends and acquaintances whose studios they visited. “We started to take our work down from the walls and started to put other artists’ works up,” Dorothy tells filmmaker Megumi Sasaki in the documentary Herb and Dorothy, which was released on DVD this week. “We thought they were better than we were, so we gave it up.”

The Vogels began collecting at a particularly auspicious time—at precisely the moment when New York became the capital of the art world and when the son of a Russian Jewish garment worker from Harlem and the daughter of an Orthodox shopkeeper from Elmira, New York, could easily befriend the people who were shaping culture in New York, many of whom were Jewish émigrés from Europe or upstarts from Brooklyn. These tastemakers grew up as part of a generation that was encouraged, thanks to New Deal programs that subsidized artists, to take art seriously, and they became adults in the wake of World War II, just as New York was replacing Paris and Berlin as the global hub for art and ideas. And, while not explicitly Jewish, the American avant garde was to a great extent shaped by Jewish collectors, dealers, artists, and critics—not least by curators at the Jewish Museum, who mounted a series of influential shows for New York School artists like Jasper Johns starting in the late 1950s. “If you were collecting, what you were valuing was, to a great extent, what Jewish critics told you to value—abstract art, color,” said Catherine Soussloff, a professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The Jewish identification with the avant garde wasn’t, of course, new; the Nazis had early on marginalized Jewish artists in Europe with the “degenerate” label. “Jews took a role in the American avant garde, and within that role they maintained their identity as Jews,” said Margaret Olin, an art historian at Yale University. “Part of the pride that they took in their place in society was that they didn’t have to just collect Jewish things—in the 1950s and 1960s, we became a part of the mainstream of American culture.” The Vogels met in 1960 and married in 1962. Herbert, known as Herby, worked at the post office; Dorothy was a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. Down in the Village, where Herby went to hang out with Abstract Expressionist painters at the Cedar Tavern on his way to the graveyard shift, no one cared about what anyone did for a living. Their first purchase together, after a Picasso vase Herby bought Dorothy as an engagement gift, was a metal sculpture by John Chamberlain. Quickly, they arrived at a simple arrangement: they would live on Dorothy’s income, and buy art with Herby’s salary. Their budget constrained their purchases; they could afford only the edgiest, most “difficult” pieces from artists who were already getting notice or work by unknown artists who welcomed the Vogels’ cash-and-carry policy. (Literally—they didn’t buy things they couldn’t cart home on the subway.) “The artists were really very appreciative of people looking at their work,” Dorothy told Tablet last week.

The Vogels weren’t the only people collecting on a shoestring in the postwar era. Dorothy recalled crossing paths in the early 1960s with Sam Hunter, the former New York Times art critic who, in his capacity as director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University—an institution financed by a mattress manufacturer—had a mandate to spend no more than $5,000 on any single piece he acquired for the fledgling museum. (The cheapest was a Claes Oldenburg he picked up for a couple hundred dollars, Hunter recalled to me earlier this year.) But they quickly gained notice among other dealers and collectors for the amount of time and energy they spent getting to know artists’ work—though some dealers objected to their practice of going straight for studio sales. “They weren’t collecting for status—they were collecting because of their commitment to the artists and their ideas,” said Norman Kleeblatt, chief curator at the Jewish Museum. “So the Vogels were able to get in on the ground level.” For years, Herby had regular phone calls and visits with Robert Barry, Dan Graham, and Sol LeWitt; European dealers would consult with the couple on trips to New York to get the lowdown. “Often we did not have time to go to the galleries,” Jeanne-Claude, the late wife of the environmental artist Christo, explains in the documentary. “In one dinner with Herby and Dorothy, the four of us, we would know everything that happened in the past six months in New York.”

Over time, the Vogels achieved every middle-class collector’s fantasy: a collection of art, assembled on the cheap, by artists who subsequently became very, very famous. And unlike other Jewish collectors who came up in the 1960s, some of whom famously sold their pieces for quick profits, the Vogels held on to everything they bought, and only agreed to part with the collection when the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, promised to make a home for it. Today, more than a thousand of their pieces are held in Washington, while another 2,500 have been distributed to museums in each of the 50 states to allow as much of their work as possible to be displayed. (There is also a newly launched website, Vogel 50×50, that catalogues the entire collection online.)

“The idea that they are ordinary people is so important,” said Ruth Fine, the National Gallery curator who handles the Vogel collection. “They made good choices before these artists were well-known, and they took on the aura of being prescient.”