Talking Pictures with Actor and Collector Russell Tovey

Talking Pictures with Actor and Collector Russell Tovey

Russell Tovey might be better known for his on-screen day job, but his “conversation” with art is his real passion project.

I t's unusual for a judge of the Turner Prize, the foremost contemporary art prize in the UK, to be engaged in a curating job at the same time. But as with so many aspects of the art world, for Russell Tovey, who is perhaps best known as an actor for his parts in The History Boys and more recently the television dystopia Years and Years, this is another boundary he is breaking down when he takes on the mantle of Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated in April.

For Tovey, auctions are an opportunity to “see artworks you might only ever see once in your life before they go to the other side of the world”, but it’s also a chance to “experience” art in a new way. “There doesn’t seem to be this hierarchy,” he says. “You’re seeing amazing artworks that haven’t been shown or seen in museums – that’s always fascinated me.”

Russell tovey in a red sweater under a black leather jacket seated in an sienna colored leather booth and white round stone table in front of a blue corrugated metal wall
Actor and Talk Art podcast host Russell Tovey is taking on Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated from 7–13 April. Elliott Morgan/Elliott Morgan / Evening Standard / eyevine

Tovey’s fascination with art began when he bought a Tracey Emin monotype after The History Boys, which changed him “molecularly” as he couldn’t believe he could put his money “into buying something that I’m going to put on my wall and I’m then going to have forever”. Tovey is now recognised as one of the most serious young collectors in Britain. He is a patron of Chisenhale Gallery and Studio Voltaire, both in London, and an honorary member of the New Museum in New York’s Contemporary Council. His engagement with the art world has taken him beyond collecting to also being one of its greatest proselytisers through his podcast Talk Art, which he co-hosts with gallerist Robert Diament.

“Art became integrated into my life as something that I could have a conversation with.”

Talk Art has allowed Tovey to meet and interview many artists and even led to a book: his and Diament’s guide to navigating the contemporary art world. But Tovey also credits Talk Art with “changing everything. Art became integrated into my life as something that I could have a conversation with.”

It is a conversation that has entranced millions of listeners from around the world. What started with Tovey, while he was acting in New York, rushing to the Strand bookstore to “pore over auction catalogues to see these works” has become an obsession, giving him “palpitations, a dopamine hit” as he walks into a gallery tirelessly looking for the next work that is exciting. And now he’s carrying on the conversation with Sotheby’s.

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