‘Creativity Can Help You Channel Anxiety’: Actor and Turner Prize Juror Russell Tovey on His Mission to Make Art Mainstream

Tovey and gallerist Robert Diament have just released a book based on their popular 'Talk Art' podcast.

Talk Art co-hosts Russell Tovey and Robert Diament. Photo by Christine Ting.

Russell Tovey seems to be everywhere these days. 

The actor and art collector has long been a recognizable presence at gallery openings and art fairs and, since 2018, he and dealer Robert Diament have been worming their way into the ears of the art world (and beyond) through their popular podcast, Talk Art. And while Tovey has made it his mission to bring art to the uninitiated, this year he’s had his own major art-world initiation—as a juror of the prestigious Turner Prize.

He and Diament have also released a book based on their podcast, which includes interviews they’ve conducted with artists, like Tracey Emin, and superstar collectors, like Elton John, as well as essays on emerging artists to watch, and tips on how to navigate the art world.

The actor has been spending lockdown at his home in London with his three dogs, working on the book, and preparing for a group show he has curated

We caught up with the Being Human actor over Zoom from his home in London, where he’s spent lockdown working on the book and curating a group show about togetherness titled “Breakfast Under the Tree,” which will open on June 5 at Carl Freedman gallery in Margate. 

Talk Art: Everything you wanted to know about contemporary art but were afraid to ask by Russell Tovey and Robert Diament.

The Talk Art book is finally here. What was the process of pulling it together like?

It’s been brilliant during lockdown to channel those anxieties into something that we love, that we’re passionate about, that we are geeks about, and make creativity out of it. It’s mental health month right now, and it’s about how creativity can help you channel anxiety. So doing this book during the pandemic was an amazing way to do that.

It goes hand in hand with the podcast because the podcast is all about championing emerging voices, celebrating enthusiasm and love for art, and just trying to make it accessible. Accessibility is kind of the big thing for us. We want to be a conduit for discovery, so other people can have fun with art, because I think for so long we are made to feel the art has this reverential, very learned approach, but with this podcast it is about saying it is for everyone.

Can you tell me about your personal experience of discovering art?

Growing up I loved comics and cartoons. I wanted to be Peter Pan, I never wanted to grow up. So when I started seeing Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring on gallery walls, museum walls, suddenly it felt like, “Hey, I haven’t got to grow up. I can still be a kid loving comics and cartoons, but suddenly I can transition into an adult and they are still kind of comics and cartoons on the gallery wall.” So that for me felt really exciting. But my art heroes, who I’ve just mentioned, had all died. So that opportunity to be part of the world they were living in was impossible. And then when I was at college at 16, I went to the Saatchi Gallery and I discovered the Young British Artists and suddenly I understood what the word “contemporary” meant—it meant now, and it meant your contemporaries, and suddenly that blew my mind. I realized I can be part of this conversation. I can meet these artists. There’s work that’s being made right now in their studios and it can come out in a couple of months and I can see it in a gallery space. That was so exciting to me. 

How did the podcast come about?

It wasn’t until I met Rob, who I do the podcast with and who I’ve written this book with, at a Tracey Emin retrospective in 2008 in Edinburgh. I realized then that there was someone else on the planet who thought the same as me about art, who had this shorthand for art, this kind of obsession, enthusiasm, excitement, passion for art as me. So we became quick friends. 

We started the podcast in 2018 basically because we wanted a platform where we could be geeks together, where we could go and review shows and do a very shorthand version of the art world. And then we started inviting people in to talk and it just built from there.

You’ve aired more than 100 episodes and your guests range from very famous artists like Tracey Emin and KAWS to celebrities who are less obviously involved in the art world, like actor Ian McKellan or musician Michael Stipe. Do you think that breadth has opened up the podcast to new audiences?

Every guest brings a different audience. So when you get superstars on there, they’re going to bring an audience that are interested in them in general, and suddenly they’re listening to an art talk. So many people have a relationship to art, but they don’t have an outlet to talk about it. When you’re talking about famous people, they don’t get asked about it a lot. They talk about whatever their main job is. But all the arts feed into each other, so these people are bringing these stories for a bigger audience.

The podcast has had nearly three million downloads now, which is not an insignificant feat.

Making an art podcast, something that is “niche,” mainstream and creating a conversation on a weekly basis is the biggest privilege.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 08: A member of staff poses infront of photographs belonging to Elton John during a press preview for "The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from The Sir Elton John Collection" at Tate Modern on November 8, 2016 in London. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.

A member of staff poses in front of photographs belonging to Elton John during a press preview for “The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from The Sir Elton John Collection” at Tate Modern on November 8, 2016. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.

Who was the hardest guest to book on the podcast?

Elton John was one that we wanted for ages because he is a renowned, obsessive collector, especially of photography, and he has had a show at the Tate, “The Radical Eye.” I kept asking and kept asking him. Then when we went into the lockdown, he was meant to be going around the world on tour, and that obviously stopped. And I was like, “Hey, Elton, I think you might be at home on lockdown. How about you come on the show now?” And he was like, “Okay, darling. Yes, I’ll come on.” And then that was how it happened. So it’s all about timing. It’s all about the hope that they want to come on and talk about art. 

How do you invite your other guests on—do you always have a previous relationship with them? Do you ever slide into someone’s DMs?

I love an art DM slide. A Carsten Holler slide into your DMs is, for me, magic. It’s pretty cheeky, but it works. We’re lucky that we’re in a climate where so many artists and so many people are on Instagram, but a lot of it is relationships and we will go via the gallery system. I think we’re very lucky that Rob runs Counter Editions, and they work with some of the world’s biggest artists, so having that relationship helps. And lots of artists recommend their friends to do it, which is always heaven.

Is there anything you’ve learned through your acting career that you feel has helped you make the podcast work?

It’s about communication. I mean, it’s all about storytelling and making it as clear as possible when you’re on stage, so you have to have a clear voice, a clear message, and know where you’re coming from. 

What’s your best tip for getting difficult guests to open up and relax more? 

I think what we do is we make it quite gossipy and accessible and colloquial and shorthand. And you know, some people get nervous. We get nervous when we talk to people, but it doesn’t go out live, there’s no pressure of that. If there’s anything anyone says that they’re not happy with, we’re not journalists trying to get some sort of exposé, we will take it out.

People have time to think about how they want to respond. I think one of the best things, and I find this myself whenever I’m interviewed, is that if you do as much research as you can, it’s quite stabilizing when someone’s got a lot more information on you than you think they’re going to have and they come up with interesting questions.

Robert Diament and Russell Tovey.

You are now a force in the art world beyond the podcast. You’ve been involved in a number of curatorial projects, and you’re on the jury for the Turner Prize. Would you credit the podcast with opening up those spaces for you?

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s been the best. One of my proudest achievements is this podcast and all I want to do is bring more people to art and to have the opportunities to curate shows, to introduce people to artists. And to be on the jury of the Turner prize, that was like winning the number one art gig ever. When Alex Farquharson from the Tate asked me if I wanted to do it, I had to pinch myself. If I knew at 16, when I saw Tracey Emin’s bed at the Saatchi Gallery, that in my late 30s I’d be on the jury for the Turner prize, I wouldn’t have believed it. 

It’s a really great selection of artists in quite a critically challenging year.

Oh, 100 percent. It was quite painful at times, all of us together. And it was quite sobering and sad because you’re trying to enter artists into a competition. You’re trying to judge them when these artists haven’t had their shows realized; they’ve had their shows shuttered. If they are open, nobody’s gone to see them. And suddenly you’re like, “how do we respect what’s going on in the world, but also respect art and artists and really try and show how important this is and feel proud of something?” So then when we started talking about the collectives that we were really interested in, and bringing them together and having conversations, it was like a Eureka moment. We all went, “ah, That’s what it is. It’s about the Turner Prize togetherness year. It’s all about bringing in the community and bringing in the public in bringing everybody in.” It’s so important to get everybody’s story because until you’re represented in the gallery world, it’s easy to deny your existence. So we all feel, collectively, very proud of the collective nominations this year.

You’re also an art collector yourself. Have you ever found that that has posed a conflict with your other art world activities?

The answer would be no. I’m an obsessive collector. I guess I can meet my heroes, that’s exciting. I mean, you can collect and then you can talk to them and know everything about the art that you’re supporting and acquiring and collecting. It’s exciting. The more I’m starting to curate, the collector side of me is like, I want all this work for myself. And then the curatorial side is like, this is so exciting that you’re able to bring this work that you’d would love for your own collection for people to see. It’s like being an actor and then suddenly you’re on the director side of it and you’re at the casting and you’re not the actor trying to get the job, but the creator who feels so brilliant.

I was actually thinking of something specific, which is the conflict you had with the artist Issy Wood over her episode of the podcast being removed. She alleged that it was after a sale of her work couldn’t be arranged. I just wanted to ask what happened there? 

Issy is a great artist. It’s not even worth talking about. She’s a great artist. I wish her very well. I think she’s going to be completely fine.

What advice would you give to somebody who is interested in the art world, but is feeling too intimidated to get involved?

Firstly, listen to Talk Art. Secondly, buy the Talk Art book, that will help you. Thirdly, I think follow artists you like on Instagram, support them, and then find your local museums or gallery spaces and go support them. Get onto the mailing list of every gallery that you respond to, look at the artists they represent, and go and see as much as possible. That’s my advice. It’s all there for us. We have so many museums that are free, and there is story after story being told by incredible artists that are on your doorstep. So it’s just leaning into that and finding what you like. And you can go to a museum and find a thousand things and you hate them all. But there will be one thing that you stand in front of and think, I really liked that. And that will change you. And always just lean into that and listen to yourself and trust your instincts. And don’t feel bad if you don’t get it because you won’t get it straight away, but you will get it one day. 

Talk Art: Everything you wanted to know about contemporary art but were afraid to ask by Russell Tovey and Robert Diament is available from Ilex Press.

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