We talk art (and more) with TALK ART’s Robert Diament

We zoom interview Robert Diament, one half of podcast phenomenon, TALK ART.

Interview & Photography Adam Bryce

Alongside co-host (and actor) Russell Tovey, gallerist Robert Diament helms TALK ART providing peak podcast content. They interview people of note (artists, gallerists, photographers) and talk about art, mostly. It’s like having an amazing couple of friends natter in your ear about some incredibly interesting topics, all presented in an inclusive and non-elitist package. 

Tell me how Talk Art came about. Obviously you and Russell both have your own separate things going on, so what inspired you to start the podcast?

It was kind of an accident, actually. Russell and I originally met through the artist Tracey Emin; she sat us next to each other at a dinner in Edinburgh about 12 years ago. And the minute we met, we were just immediately connected and it’s quite unusual to have that kind of a connection so quickly. We both felt like we’d found a kindred spirit in each other and, at the time, we were in our late 20s and our friends were not interested in art in the way we were. We both had this very intense obsession where we wanted to know every title, every detail, every bit of an artist’s life story; everything.

It was a bit of a shock at first but the other day Russell said to me that someone walked up to him at that opening and said to him, ‘Oh, you must be Tracey’s youngest collector’. I’d actually loaned some works to that exhibition and I’d saved up all my money. I bought one of her works for maybe £3,500 pounds, at the time. And I’d saved every month to be able to afford it for, maybe like, six months. It wasn’t like we were rich kids or anything. It was just that we were passionately obsessed. It turned out Russ was really confused because he was like, ‘I don’t have any works in this exhibition’ and, then, when he met me, he realised they were talking about me. So it was really funny. We were two of the youngest people there.

In Summer 2018, I was asked to do a podcast interview for a print business I work for called Counter Editions and I didn’t even know what a podcast was. But I remember, about two and a half years ago, hearing about podcasts and thinking maybe it’s something good because we’re an online business, we sell prints online and basically 90 per cent of sales go through the website but we never do marketing. We never do adverts. It’s all word of mouth. It was set up by curator Carl Freedman 20 years ago and it’s become a very successful business.

But, for once, I thought ‘you know what, I’m going to go and do this.’ The day before, the producer calls me and says, ‘oh, you do know you’re meant to bringing someone with you to interview? Someone who has a connection to your business.’ So I called Russell, because he had bought many Counter Edition prints over the years and he said, ‘let’s do it.’

We recorded a one-hour interview in West London. There were other people there who were trying to prompt our conversation but, every time they would try and talk, we would just keep talking, and we had a rapport. We really enjoyed it.

When we heard it back, we thought, ‘oh, this is quite good’. And it was the first time we’d had this magnifying glass on our friendship. We weren’t even aware of the dynamic we had. My mum heard it and then Russell’s mum heard it, and they both called us and said, ‘oh, my god, that’s the first time I fully understood what it is you both do and why you seem to be so passionate about art’.

I think it felt quite alien to them as to why we ended up going into this world and maybe it was a bit obscure, and a bit elitist or something, and they didn’t quite understand it. Even though our parents both go to exhibitions and they do like culture, but I don’t think they ever quite understood our obsession with it all.

And then mum said, ‘you should really keep doing this because you two finish each other sentences and you’ve got such a good rapport. I’ve always thought that you should have a diary or a blog where you share about all the amazing people you’re meeting.’ Because I’ve always taken it a bit for granted. I used to make pop music, for 15 years, in my band Temposhark and I would get to meet ‘people’. So, I would be in Los Angeles and meet some famous Hollywood superstars and get to know some fascinating, creative people over the years.

So we tried it out and recorded one episode, and we didn’t quite yet know exactly what we were doing. We didn’t even have a title for the show. We didn’t even know what the format of a podcast was. It was a bit like two friends, when you’re a teenager, recording in your attic.

Like pretending to present a TV show?

And when we started recording, Russell did this fully formed, catchy introduction, ‘good afternoon, good evening, good morning’ and I was in complete shock as we hadn’t discussed it beforehand. So it just started to happen spontaneously where we would bounce off each other and the more comfortable one of us became, the other one had to keep up.

We started to invite people and I remember being so nervous about inviting people, thinking people are going to say no. We asked Michael Craig-Martin for the first interview and he immediately said yes. We did this two-hour interview with him and we were just thinking up questions as we went.

Amazing. I love it.

And then, we had to edit that interview down because, at the time everyone was said, ‘you need to learn about podcasts and your opening episode was too long.’ So we edited Michael’s episode down to about an hour and then, in the end, I thought, ‘I can’t make it any shorter than this. He is so interesting’.

So we started to do these long-form podcasts that were an hour, an hour and a half, and loads of people were saying, ‘It’s never going to work. This is ridiculous. No one’s got time. People have about 15 minutes on their train journey in the morning where they might give you their time’ but I just thought, ‘screw this. I’m going to ignore it.’ We just kept doing it and then, in the end, it just grew and then people got really into these long-form episodes. By 2020, in time for lockdown, we have this big back catalogue of about 95 episodes, recorded since we started in October 2018.

We’ve since recorded about another 30 more; we’re constantly recording. It’s a big part of life now. And in lockdown, it was really interesting to see that, suddenly, people were going through the back catalogue and listening to every single episode; listening to 90 episodes all in a row over a period of three weeks. It was really beginning to help people because they finally had the time to actually listen to it.

All of a sudden an hour was nothing.

Exactly. We see it as a bit like a time capsule where you’re capturing these moments in people’s creative lives. We try to make it quite fun and, even though it looks like a fun chat show, it ends up being a bit more like a psychotherapy session or something.

It does.

We talk about the artist’s childhood or their favourite colour, and just weird things that you wouldn’t normally get to talk about. We recorded one with Joyce Pensato, who was an amazing pop painter in America — a very, very cool woman and she’d been listening to the show since it began because she’s a mate of ours. She’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and only had about three months to live, and she called us and said, ‘look, I really want you to do an interview with me on Talk Art’. She was too busy when she was in London but she really wanted to do it. So we flew out to New York for her and we went to her hospice, which was incredibly emotionally intense.

I bet.

We sat with her and it was so nice to see the joy she was getting in this interview with us. I think it ended up being a 45-minute interview and she really enjoyed it and was really performing but she was incredibly unwell, and she died about three weeks later. To have that interview with her and for her to be able to feel like she was telling her story, you felt a special energy right at the beginning of the episode. It took a long time for us to process that and, for months afterwards, we were so sad because it was very traumatic but, at the same time, life-affirming.

I’m really proud that we did it because there are people who didn’t even know her work and, because she passed away, you get all this interest in people’s work and there’s a myth that comes with the whole thing. Galleries start to promote their work in different ways and I feel like that interview is becoming a really great time capsule for her.

One of the things that I like the most about the podcast is that you and Russell have fun with it. Maybe don’t overplan questions and bring it to a level that anyone can understand, whether you’re an expert or not. It’s such a great way for people to find out about art and not feel quite so nervous about entering that world.

And It’s not always traditional artists that you talk to. Noel Fielding this week? Noel Fielding threw me a little bit. I wasn’t expecting it but I really like what he does, so it’s interesting. How do you go about choosing who it is you’re going to speak to?

Russell and I both get so much from art and we have felt quite shut out, at times, from the art world because we have this genuine love and we’re both very geeky, and we’ve been collecting since we were kids; objects and things. So we’re shut out, in a way, from the price points of a lot of the artworks ourselves but Russell’s becoming more and more successful as an actor. And, with that, you obviously get money and fame, and all these things which sound great but often it can actually be quite challenging as well. He’s now able to probably invest more than I would be able to.

But what we both get from it, is it gives you meaning to your life and it can help you to understand yourself and your place in the world. It can also help other people and I really want to encourage people A) to be creative themselves and B) being creative doesn’t just mean you have to be a painter or a musician or make art. You can actually connect with art and that’s creative in itself.

What I find is that’s incredibly enriching and good for mental health, and good for connecting to others. You can go to exhibitions with your friends and, in the UK, particularly, we have a lot of free museums and a lot of free access to art. It’s really important to encourage it and make people realise that it might already be a part of their life but maybe they’re taking it for granted or they’re not acknowledging that it’s something they can get even more into.

With the guests, Noel Fielding is a really good example because he’s got a big following here. He was really cool because he was in The Mighty Boosh. But he studied art and he studied with Dexter Dalwood (a really great Turner-nominated artist in the UK). Noel’s whole thinking, the way he looks at the world, even with his comedy, is all related to his art practice. He paints every day and he sells his paintings. He has exhibitions of them and I think some people don’t really take that side of his life as seriously as his comedy. But, to me, he’s this really interesting mind.

What I’m trying to say is, it doesn’t matter if you’re being shown in the Royal Academy, necessarily. It’s more about if you’ve got the vision and the best artists create their own worlds. It might not be to everyone’s taste but as long as something is authentic and it has meaning, and they’ve created this interesting universe, I’m really into that. Bringing in different minds and different people.

On this new season, we’ve also got Stephen Fry who’s amazing. He’s someone who I’ve sold art to but Russell is also really good friends with him. We did a two-hour interview and I think it will probably come out as a one-hour interview. He spent one hour talking about the history of Adam and Eve in art. His knowledge of art is extraordinary.

I can imagine.

Our core is going to be interviewing artists but, at the same time, it’s good to bring in different voices because, with those people, you get different audiences. And then, you’re connecting those listeners to other, lesser-known artists. Last week, we interviewed Jeffry Mitchell who is a quite obscure American folk artist. He makes sculptures and he’s really cool.

This week, you might listen to Noel Fielding and then listen to the next episode and hear about Jeffry Mitchell and discover something new; that’s what we’re trying to do. You’re almost balancing the celebrity culture with the complete unknown, underground culture and, in that, something really magical happens. But, at the same time, we’re not compromising on our vision.

We get requests, daily now, from celebrities, their agents; even famous fashion designers. Occasionally, we do them because we like what they do but, generally, we’re not going to do that because the podcast is meant to be our personal taste. And you might not agree with our personal taste but that’s what podcasts are and there are so many. And the great thing, since we started, is that there are loads of other art podcasts now that are booming.

All of a sudden there are so many and that has to have something to do with the fact that Talk Art has been so successful. It’s stirred this movement.

When we started, I went to one of the major providers because they were sponsoring comedy podcasts but they said, “There’s no way we can sponsor you because there’s just no market for this.” We’ve proven, now, that there is an audience for it and it’s growing by the week; we have listeners in about 75 countries around the world and it’s constantly increasing.

So we spent the whole of lockdown not only recording the whole QuarARTine season but also we’ve just written a 50,000-word Talk Art book which comes out in May 2021 on Octopus Books/Hachette. All new content; we’ve written about the artists that we love on 10 different themes.

We’re not saying it’s the be-all-and-end-all. It’s a sort of notebook to say, ‘this is where art is right now for us’. A handbook for people to dip into and then, maybe, explore what they’re into and, maybe, they’ll like one or two of the artists we talk about in each chapter. At the end of each essay, we give pointers to other artists, listing five to 10 further artists to research.

It’s just very much about our enthusiasm and passion which, if you’ve listened to the podcast, you’ll know is unending because we’re hyperactive about art. A curator, yesterday, from the Tate Museum said, “Oh my god. I’ve been listening to you. I do not understand how every episode you’re so enthused but I can tell it’s genuine.” And I said, “That’s also because the guests we’re inviting, we love.” And that’s why it’s so great not being on a mainstream platform where you have to compromise because you have to worry about the advertisers whereas we have so much creative freedom; we can keep our vision very clear.

That’s got to be the key to its success. That authenticity and staying true to what you’re trying to achieve, and not being bound by any commercial constraints. It’s so exciting that you’ve been able to see it grow without having to make any sort of changes.

You mentioned that you had around 75 countries listening and it’s interesting to think about the number of my friends, locally in New Zealand, who listen to Talk Art. Do you think that it’s a combination of podcasts being a global medium and the pandemic?

A lot of it is to do with our culture. The last 10 years has become more image-heavy than ever before so people are looking at images the whole time. We’ve become incredibly literate at reading images to understand without words. Even though, of course, TV shows and streaming services are very popular too, people are yearning for something more intimate. And there are a lot of people listening to podcasts on headphones which is an incredibly interesting thing, physically, because you’ve got these voices talking into your ears; I think it creates a special intimacy.

In the pandemic, a lot of people either live with their partner or family or might live alone. For the ones living alone, I think podcasts have become almost like a hug. I live alone and, right now, I haven’t hugged anyone basically since January and I’m beginning to really feel like I’m missing human contact. Podcasts, for me, become this friend and it sounds really weird but it genuinely is an extension of the world.

I was listening to a lot of Jessie Ware’s Table Manners because, when we started doing our podcast, Russell went on that one and did this really great interview, and I got really into her podcast. I really liked her music and I discovered her through that podcast. I almost felt like I knew her and her mum. It’s so friendly. Then, I met her at a White Cube exhibition of Tracey Emin’s and stopped her and said, ‘Hi’. We had this lovely chat and she is just the same in real life and that’s what is so nice; it is so genuine. That level of intimacy and slowing things down but also being stimulated intellectually in a different way without looking.

That’s what everyone said to me when we started doing the podcast. ‘It’s never going to work because how the hell can you talk about art and not see the art?’ So we linked up to Instagram where you can see images but we don’t really post everything because people aren’t stupid. They can Google them. We do reference titles a lot in the podcast but part of the magic is that you don’t see the art and that you can imagine. Sometimes, you might not even like the artist’s work but you might love the episode and you might love the guest as a human being.

We did a New York Times interview in February this year, just before lockdown and the journalist said to us, “Why is it you’ve had so many different people from different backgrounds? You’ve had a lot of people of colour, a lot of black artists, a lot of queer artists, a lot of older women, older men; is that something that you’re consciously doing?” Almost like positive discrimination but, to be honest, we hadn’t thought about that. We don’t have rules. We always pick our guests, do all the interviews and the edits ourselves. We’ve never had a team producing the show.

I started to realise because Russell and I are both gay; we grew up in the 80s when it wasn’t as accepted and gay people weren’t often able to have children. We felt like outsiders in many ways, which is also why I think we identify so strongly with certain artists like Tracey Emin, or Frida Kahlo and different people like that; David Hockney. You end up feeling solidarity with people who have got different struggles to yours.

Even though it’s not your struggle, you can understand it with empathy. Subconsciously, that’s what has happened. Our podcast has this diversity and celebration of different people’s stories and I’m really proud of that because I feel like, with the millions of listens that we have now, those people’s stories are getting heard by people who might never have heard that experience before. That’s a gift. And I’m really grateful for that coming into my life because it’s just brilliant being able to learn from different people.

One of the great things about Talk Art is that you are learning every episode but we’re all able to learn with you. Possibly the artist learns as they tell their own story as well? It’s therapy for everyone, a sort of therapy session through dialogue.

The main thing for us is the education and we find it really fun. We love researching.

Russell and I never tell each other what we’ve researched so we go in blind to each other’s research. We never know what the other one is thinking and often he will say something and we look at each other, and we’re like, ‘that was my question’. It’s really funny, and we play with that as well, which is really fun. We don’t tell the guests what the questions are either. So it’s spontaneous, natural conversation.

So often, especially when you interview someone quite famous, their press rep will ask for the questions ahead of time. And I feel as though it ruins it a little bit because they’re too prepared and their answers may not be as genuine. You recently interviewed Wolfgang Tillmans and I keep thinking he would be my dream interviewee. Who’s on your dream list of who you would want to interview?

We had a list when we first started the show because we were trying to think of people we knew. We came up with so many names and it’s really interesting thinking back because, in that list, we had people like Noel Fielding. We had all of these different people who you wouldn’t normally put on an art podcast. Wolfgang was in the top first five and I don’t think he would have immediately done the interview in the early days.

The trouble is, when you get to that level of success, you don’t necessarily want to do interviews anymore because you’re so tired by it. And I felt really proud that he wanted to come on and the way that he shared his story with us was just unbelievable.

He was so open.

One of the people I really want to interview is Michelle Obama. Now we’re thinking really, really big because why not?

What’s the worst that can happen?

They might just say no. Edward Enninful from British Vogue also came on our podcast; we’ve had amazing people come on lately and it’s really interesting to hear these cultural figures, who you feel like you know. You learn a lot about people when you hear about what they like to look at. Art-wise, we really love David Hockney. We’d love to interview Bridget Riley. Jeff Koons would be cool. Jenny Holzer. I really want to interview Marilyn Minter as well and I’ve been messaging her a bit on Instagram because she’s a real unique artist.

I interviewed Marilyn Minter for a magazine years ago and she’s an incredible woman. Hugely opinionated, which is great. You have a book coming out in May and you recently made a film. Have you other projects that you are both working on?

Russell is curating a show at my gallery, Carl Freedman Gallery, in Margate and it opens on the 14th of November. It’s got about 16 international artists and it’s all about how we live now. It’s group portraits so there are scenes with two or more people in them. And it’s about human interaction and different narratives, and different people from different backgrounds. It’s a really brilliant show and includes a lot of great art. Louis Fratino, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Doron Langberg are in it, who have been guests on the podcast. And then really unknown artists, very emerging ones like Sola Olulode and Oscar Yi Hou. It’s going to be amazing.

INDEX is based in New Zealand and what Talk Art is doing is so global. Have you any familiarity with any New Zealand art or New Zealand artists at all?

That’s a good question. You know what? I think Michael Stevenson is totally amazing. He’s a very conceptual artist based in Berlin now but he’s from New Zealand, originally. It’s very anthropology-based, looking at a lot of esoteric stories where he doesn’t distinctly tell you what the narrative is but you have to unravel it. Very complex. Very interesting work. I think he’s one of the great artists of our time.

He shows with Michael Lett and I love Michael’s gallery. I met Michael in Hong Kong and in London. I really respect his programme and he’s someone who has such a strong, singular vision.

It’s my favourite gallery here and he has a very single, clean and honest idea of what he likes, who he wants to represent and how he works with artists. My favourite New Zealand artist is Simon Denny.

I used to work with an artist called Michael Fullerton and he’s really good friends with Simon Denny. I’ve seen Simon’s work at exhibitions all over the world and I think he is an amazing artist. And, you know what? Simon Denny was taught by Michael Stevenson and I think they’ve even done the Berlin Biennale or something, together.

I’ve also got work by Francis Upritchard. And so does Russell. He has some of her lamps and sculptures. I’ve got about four of her works on paper from about 10 years ago.

Fantastic. We produced a lengthy feature in INDEX’s first print magazine with Simon Denny. We’re experiencing an interesting period; we seem to have quite a few talented artists across different mediums, which is quite amazing for such a small country.

My cousin lives in New Zealand but I’ve never visited. I keep meaning to. One day I will be there.


TALK ART: Everything you Wanted to Know about Contemporary Art but were Afraid to Ask by Robert Diament and Russell Tovey. Release date May 2021; published by Octopus/Hachette.



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