"Not Pretending to be Anyone Else" – Robert Diament

Director of Carl Freedman Gallery and Talk Art host Robert Diament discusses his musical past, an unconventional entry into the art world, and the value in doing things your own way

Robert (left) with his Talk Art Co-Host Russell Tovey (right) and Russell's dog Rocky. Photo: Tom Lardner for Plus Agency London.

As anyone loosely involved in the art world will tell you, a huge part of it is artifice. That is to say, it often seems that your stature is not necessarily determined by who you are and what you've done, but who you seem you might be, and what you might have done. When I met Robert Diament, that pretence flew out the window – not only did he give me his time (and a quick tour of the gallery and print facilities at the Carl Freedman's Margate hub), but he continued to follow up and make himself available, eager to connect with the individual behind the keyboard, or in this case, on the other side of a recording iPhone. With this in mind, it is no surprise that Robert has enjoyed great success as an art world personality: how can you dislike someone who, for better or worse, is nothing other than themselves?

Jacob Barnes

You've covered this elsewhere, but it's worth getting the full picture: What did your transition from your music career as Temposhark to a full-time art career look like?

Robert Diament

So when I grew up, my mom worked in PR for the Natural History Museum, while my dad worked in animation and physics before going on to other roles in the technology world. So my whole childhood was spent going to the Natural History Museum on my holidays and days off. Subconsciously, I think that must have been where it's all come from, the idea of collecting, because I used to see dinosaur claws and drawers [of artefacts] and we'd go through all the drawers of fossils and documents in the libraries; I have really clear memories of all of that. But that's the kind of thing that you then forget. When you get older, you forget these influences; you just forget what your childhood was. But I think that's probably really where it came from.

Also, my mom always had a real passion for creativity and art. I was never that interested myself in making art. I really struggled to draw and gave up studying it at about 11, as soon as you could take it off as one of your choices in school. Music for me was much more immediate, as was acting. I used to love acting when I was a kid. I was much more into the performative elements of creativity. Then in my teens, my brother died from ecstasy, the club drug, in a nightclub. I found books about Frida Kahlo and David Hockney and even Georgia O'Keeffe. I got really into the narratives behind artists' lives, which is kind of what Talk Art ended up becoming, in a way. But as I was making music, Tracey Emin came to prominence and I got really into her work because, in my brain, there was a link to Frida Kahlo, as well as this idea that she was actually alive now and someone for whom I could actually be part of their journey. I think that's what I liked about art: that it could be a pursuit for self-improvement and emotional connection. And, on the flip-side, how collecting can be almost like making a self-portrait. Then, when I met Maureen Paley, I was dating a guy called Dan and we were together for like, six, seven years in my 20s. [Dan] was really good friends with one of Maureen's gallery assistants, Max, and Max kept inviting us to all these parties in the early 2000s. I used to go down to her openings and be absolutely terrified because I would feel like the art world was this very cool, other world that I wasn't part of. But Maureen was always super welcoming and lovely – and quite shy, actually. I really liked that about her, because even though she was this big, iconic gallerist, she used to be very quiet and stay in her office. You'd go to the opening and say hi, she'd sit you down, and you'd have these amazing conversations. She was very generous, giving me books and educating me about art. I started to collect from her; I didn't really have much money at the time because I was in my 20s, but I got obsessed with certain artists of hers. I would buy work and pay in instalments, and then that whole experience of my connection with Maureen is what led to me wanting to become a gallerist. Every time I went to her space, I was so happy. I would leave feeling transformed and intellectually stimulated and as if I'd discovered new things. It really got me into contemporary art way more than I'd ever been before.

I was in my band at the time, and I wasn't really enjoying performing on stage; the music industry was quite tough. I found it quite a patriarchal and weird system. And I was gay. I felt quite a lot of homophobia in the music world that I didn't feel in the art world. I felt like [the art world] was a very inclusive space, and there were all different kinds of people. When I was recording my second album, I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. Everybody thought I was crazy, because I spent about 15 years working on music, and it got to a point where I was touring the world. I was putting out records and they were selling on iTunes; I did a duet with Imogen Heap, and it sold really well. But I couldn't do the uphill struggle, and the only place I've ever felt happy while touring was in museums.

So then I studied for a year, doing a master's at Christie's through University of Glasgow, which I did in London. That year was the best year ever, because I'd made the decision that I wanted a change. And even though I had been trying to go on UCL's course, I would have had to have waited another year, and I needed something immediate. I'm very immediate; that's kind of how I operate with everything, which is partly why Talk Art has done so well. I just thought "If I don't do this, now, I'm going to be miserable for a year." So I went on the Christie's course, and John Slyce was my tutor. He's an amazing guy; he taught a lot of artists at the RCA and people like Anne Hardy had really recommended him. I had been unsure about Christie's – I'm not interested in auction houses – but importantly, John's a guy that teaches artists. He mentored me for the whole year and filled in all the [art historical] gaps I had – I knew everything from 1990 to the present day, but I knew nothing before that. Then I wanted to go work in a gallery, and I did loads of interviews, but in the end, I realised that the only people I really wanted to work for were either Maureen or Carl Freedman, because I really respected what both of them did. Eventually, I got a job with Carl after meeting him about eight times – it was a really slow process because he wasn't really even looking for somebody, but I just felt like it was where I wanted to be. I've been there almost 12 years now.

JB: It’s incredible to listen to you chart that journey from your childhood to today; you're able to break down the narrative in a way that makes a lot of sense. There are a number of interesting points in that, but I want to pick out one: So you were performing with your band, and you weren't enjoying it, and you wanted to go into the art world. I would imagine that at that point, there wasn't much of a need to pursue formal training. What led you to go back to school?

RD: I felt like I needed to do it; I felt like everyone in the art world knew me as a collector, and as somebody that would go to all the dinners. I was kind of part of the social scene of it, but not really part of the art world on an intellectual level. I mean, I understood everything that was going on, but I felt like I didn't have the credentials. And you don't actually need the credentials – Carl Freedman is self made – but I think I needed to prove something to myself. In a way, it wasn't so much about getting the degree, it was more about spending time really looking at what it was I liked. I also wrote a thesis, which I think was a really valuable process, and has set me up for everything I've done since. It was more about self-confidence.

It's funny that as a performer, I was someone that put myself out into the world. I've even done it again with Talk Art. So I obviously have a natural desire to connect with people and to communicate, but I had to realize that it was okay to be myself – that's really let me do what I want in life. I didn't realize that before, and it took me until I was something like 35 to get there, and now I'm 40. But the art world is one where you have the ability to invent.

JB: Yes, I agree about being able to invent – I think particularly in the UK, there is the freedom to really do your thing.

RD: And importantly, it's not just London. I remember a gallerist in London saying to me when we moved to Margate that we were making a mistake, because all the artists were in London at the art schools. But now there's the Margate Art School here, there's the Open School East here, and they're free to go to. There's loads of artists now living in Margate because people can't afford to live in London. And that's not to say it's not valid to study art if you can afford it, only that master's programs cost so much now and exclude so many people. I like that there are these other centres now, and it is decentralised, and that I'm actually in a town where there's two art schools on my doorstep, with loads of artists moving because the rents are cheaper. Then they commute into London because London is still a valid art hub. I just think it's funny that four years ago, five years ago, I was told that there was nothing here but actually luckily everything is here now.

JB: I think you hit the nail on the head insofar as there can never be a "right" or "wrong" answer, because if you're showing good art, and bringing passion, people will come see it.

RD: Yes! Even our visiting figures have gone up – we get like 7,000 to 9,000 people coming to a show now, whereas in London, we got like 1000. We've become almost like a Kunsthalle here. We're a commercial gallery, and we obviously make sure everyone knows we're a commercial gallery, but we're trying to do these more expansive exhibitions which are more inclusive, have stories that everyone can relate to, and we're free entry. We've done loads with local charities here and even with the older community – I do tours and we have an open door policy. This idea of community has changed my life, and I'm a happier person living here. Even the coffee shop has our posters up – we're all this community of people.

I think there are different art worlds as well. I'm really into this idea of having your own art world, and not needing to be a part of others'. What we were talking about with my master's, where I felt like I needed a gold star or a badge – actually, you're enough in your own right. And if you're passionate enough, you can make something happen. And I think that's the message: you can do it any way you are. You can even do it from your kitchen table!

Robert's friendship with Russell Tovey has spawned the highly successful Talk Art Podcast. Photo by Christine Ting.

JB: I think the most important thing is always to just do, right? But, to come back around: You graduated from your master's, what was the thought process behind working for Maureen and Carl? For Carl, was it his connection to Tracy [Emin]?

RD: No, it was actually just that I really liked his artists; he showed Michael Fullerton at the time, and Michael was an artist that I thought was one of the geniuses of our generation. Also, there were a few artists that we don't show now because the gallery has evolved. But when I first started, I was drawn by artists that I really admired, and I really wanted to be part of that. I also didn't want to set up my own gallery, because I wanted to get experience. The main drive I had was to look after artists, but also to look after collectors, in the sense of finding the right home for the artists' work. When an artist made a painting, I would then know the right family to have it, that would protect it. With artists, I was sometimes a cheerleader, sometimes a counsellor, sometimes a friend, sometimes a business ally, you know what I mean? I wanted to nurture them, really. Funnily enough, Carl and I are so different that we almost are like two circles in a Venn diagram, and we meet in the middle. We don't operate in each other's circles much at all, but we bring very different things – he's much more, perhaps, intellectually rigorous than me, much more forward thinking; he sees a much bigger picture. He saw that Margate was a possibility, and I would never have taken that jump on my own. I'm much more in the present. I'm very social, and I love connecting to people. I like singing the praises of art, trying to always spread it as a message around the world. And those combined powers were actually more powerful to me than having my name on the door. Carl's always given me space, so we get to run the gallery together. We ask each other's opinions and we listen to each other.

JB: I think that certainly makes sense – I run a small gallery along with a partner, and the division is much the same.

RD: You spend most of your time with the people you work with, and it's become like a family to me. It reminds me of other good dealers like Pauline [Daly] at Sadie Coles. Yes, it's Sadie's name on the gallery, but Pauline Daly is just as much of a force as Sadie is. She's an amazing woman. I feel so lucky that I can be myself in my workplace, and not have to wear a suit, or something like that.

JB: If only more galleries operated in that way, where there isn't a strict hierarchy! I don't want to bog down the conversation with Talk Art, but I think one of the things that really draws me to your own position as a dealer is that I can imagine there is a need self-mythologise and evolve publicly. Has [the podcast] changed things at the gallery at all?

RD: I don't have children, so Talk Art is kind of like the space where you would go home to your family, because I don't live with anybody. So when I go home, I do Talk Art. But, if anything, it's brought me even closer to art, because I'm talking to artists that I don't even work with. You see things from different perspectives. But also, I've always found that you can discover new artists through other artists. So in a way, by talking to more artists, I'm learning more about what's actually going on in the world. It's kept me incredibly connected to art, creativity and creation. But initially, it didn't really have any impact on the gallery, and I don't even think people necessarily connect the two now. I don't think the podcast has really brought in collectors or anything like that. We have a very tight group of collectors we work with anyway. And that's almost like a family. We have these long term connections, like friendships, where we seek out works for them. And when you do art fairs, of course, you meet loads of new collectors. Maybe it's affected visitors – there's definitely different groups of people coming to the gallery now.

JB: But you haven't found that you need to adjust the way you do things after the show became popular?

RD: The thing is, I'm just myself, and I passionately believe in what we do. I'm not pretending to be anybody else. That's why I don't feel pressure from it, because I've just been myself.

Jacob Barnes

is a writer and editor born in New York, raised in Dublin, Ireland, and currently living in London. After working in the film industry, he decided to start Soft Punk with Charlie in the summer of 2019. Since then, Jacob has worked as a writer, editor, publisher, and curator for numerous publications and organizations spanning the United States and Europe.

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