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There are no pictures, but this art podcast is thriving
Talk Art hosts Russell Tovey, left, and Robert Diament, right, talk with artist Salman Toor in New York, Jan. 27, 2020. The hosts, who interview their guests with a wide-eyed gusto, have steadily built up a substantial following since launching in October 2018. Christine Ting/The New York Times.

by Rachel Felder



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On a recent blustery weekend, gallerist Robert Diament and actor Russell Tovey, co-hosts of the British podcast Talk Art, had a deliberately untouristy agenda as they darted between three New York boroughs: recording upcoming episodes of their show, which has become one of the fastest-growing art-focused podcasts on the internet.

Since its first episode in October 2018, Talk Art has steadily built a substantial following, with more than half a million downloads. But in spite of that popularity — and prestigious guests like curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and artists such as Grayson Perry, Vik Muniz and Toyin Ojih Odutola — the program has lost none of its initial unaffected, homespun feel. Diament, 39, and Tovey, 38, interview their guests with a wide-eyed gusto, whether they are captivated by gallery owner Sadie Coles talking about working with John Currin, or are listening intently to how Tracey Emin’s grief over her mother’s death inspired her recent show at White Cube in London.

The pair will be recording more episodes here over the next few months. Tovey is in New York to perform in a Broadway production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” that opens in April. Diament is planning several visits for podcast tapings; in May, his trip will include recording three episodes in front of an audience at Symphony Space.

Although he’s not an art world professional, Tovey has been a passionate collector ever since he earmarked part of his pay from the 2006 film “The History Boys” to buy a print by Emin, who later became one of Talk Art’s first guests.

Diament’s background is unorthodox, too: Before he earned a master’s degree from Christie’s, he was the frontman of a successful electropop band, Temposhark. He’s the director of Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate, Kent, where he’s worked for a decade.

“We’re just art geeks and we want to talk to other people about it,” Tovey said over a cup of strongly-brewed tea in the West Village apartment he’s staying in, as his French bulldog Rocky breathes heavily in his lap.

They shrug off any cynicism about their unusual trajectories. “People just want to say, ‘Oh, that’s what you are: Stay in your lane,’” Diament said during his recent visit. “For us, being creative people, it’s just very narrow-minded.”

Gaps in their knowledge inevitably show through. At one of the recent New York tapings, for example, artist KAWS brought up acclaimed photographer of graffiti Henry Chalfant; Tovey had to ask who he is. A mention of the Mudd Club, the Tribeca hot spot that hosted an influential 1981 graffiti exhibit, “Beyond Words,” also required explaining.

And some of the hosts’ personal interjections, like comparing art collections to their childhood stashes of stickers of the Garbage Pail Kids, in an interview with ceramist Tommaso Corvi-Mora, can feel intrusive. The hosts’ uniformly buoyant approach can also feel out-of-sync when speaking with guests like artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, whose work deals with human rights and surveillance.

Still, the show’s down-to-earth atmosphere puts many guests at ease. Last fall, Obrist reminisced about the first space he curated: his childhood room, around age 16, covered with a rotation of art-related postcards. Actor Ian McKellen, in an episode about his art collection, told the hosts about buying a print at the Factory from Andy Warhol, whom he called “a goer and a show-off” and also a “nice camp young man.”

“There is an almost kind of free jazz moment in it,” Obrist recalled. “They kind of jump back and forth between the questions. It creates a kind of energy in the room.”

The goal is to make the conversations with guests feel unprompted and natural. “It’s like you’re sitting in the room with them having a gossip, not like, ‘Formal question, chat, let’s be serious,’” Tovey said. “All we wanted to do was make art accessible, nonacademic, non-elitist, gossipy and fun.”

When artist and musician Billy Childish explained in a 2019 episode that he rarely goes to art world parties, for example, Tovey merrily asserted, “You’re bringing the party to Talk Art.”

“I think you are the party,” Diament chimed in, without missing a beat.

The format of each episode is simple: The pair interviews a guest or pair of guests in depth, for about an hour. Some tapings are done in a North London studio, but most happen on location using portable equipment tucked in an orange backpack. Occasionally, the show has been taped live, as in the upcoming New York sessions, in front of an audience. They’ve gone to studios, homes, offices, museum and gallery exhibitions, and — in the case of last year’s episode with artist Joyce Pensato, taped a few weeks before she died — a bed in a nursing home on the Upper East Side, where she discussed her admiration of George Grosz and Edward Munch and having Joan Mitchell as a mentor in the ’70s.

The hosts have been friends since they met in August 2008 at a dinner in Edinburgh honoring Emin. Their bond still includes a seemingly endless stream of daily texts, and the podcast grew out of their art-focused outings to studios and gallery openings. “We have this kind of ongoing chat, which is what the show is,” said Diamant. “It’s not like we created that for the show.”

The choice of guests reflects the hosts’ personal tastes — there’s little focus on photography, for example — and is decidedly inclusive in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, race and sexual preference. They’ve had established artists like Rose Wylie, emerging ones like Jamian Juliano-Villanni and Wong Ping, and innovators like Helen Cammock and Kembra Pfahler. There have been gallery owners and curators as well, like Jasmin Tsou, who runs JTT in New York.

The interview lineup of artists on their recent trip was typically diverse. One morning, they went to Bushwick to speak with Salman Toor in his narrow studio, surrounded by paintings earmarked for his upcoming show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Toor, who was born in Lahore, Pakistan, talked them through the autobiographical elements of his work, which frequently depicts what he called the “dignity and glamour” of gay life. KAWS discussed the complexities of mounting a giant inflatable sculpture he created in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor last year. In Cheyenne Julien’s Bronx studio one evening, she traced the origins of her painting career to scribbling in Sharpie on the walls of her childhood apartment nearby. Ojih Odutola spoke about the influence of science fiction, like “Star Trek,” on her newest work.

Also included in the show’s mix are high-profile collectors who don’t typically talk much about art. Lena Dunham, for example, discussed pieces she owns by Ellen Berkenblit and Lisa Yuskavage, as well as her own painting, which she said her father, artist Carroll Dunham, described as “a very credible hobby.”

“They’ve managed to kind of crack it,” said Susie Warhurst, senior vice president of content at Acast, a Stockholm-based podcast company that hosts the program. “They’ve found a unique way of talking about something that’s extremely visual.”

They’ve also found a way to engage a comparatively youthful audience: According to Acast’s tracking, around 70% of the show’s listeners on Spotify are younger than 35. Talk Art’s audience overall has increased by more than 80% since last March, when the company began working with the podcast.

“This is such a passion project that it’s easy,” Tovey said. “It’s a hobby. You don’t juggle a hobby, because you look forward to it.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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