Once seen as the sole preserve of the elite, the realm of art cllection is these days attracting young blood to its ranks. Step forward Robert Diament (left), an avid collector and Director of the Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate. In the latest edition of Overseas, he tells Ross Davies about hanging out with Tracey Emin, the seaside life and why contemporary art should be accessible to all.
When the Turner Prize heads to Margate later this year, it will represent yet another coup in the seaside town’s ongoing story of regeneration.
At the start of this century, Margate’s former Victorian grandeur had been left to rack and ruin, boarded up and bruised. However, wave of new investment has seen the seaside town thriving once more – encapsulated no better than in its burgeoning arts district.
Not only does it boast the David Chipperfield-designed Turner Contemporary gallery, but studios belonging to former enfant terrible, and Margate local, Tracey Emin, as well as Jonathan Viner – two bone fide giants of the contemporary art world, whose places of work are both housed in the site of the old Thanet Press.
At the end of April, Emin and Viner will have new a neighbour. The Carl Freedman Gallery will be relocating from London to Margate – a move that is being overseen by Robert Diament, the gallery’s director.
Diament, who plans to divide his time between the capital and the seaside – he is in the process of renovating a new property there – is already on familiar terms with Margate, having become firm friends with Emin in his mid-twenties, back when he was plying his trade as a musician.
“She invited me down a few times,” he tells me from his new adopted hometown. “I remember one year we all stayed at the Walpole Bay Hotel, an eccentric, old-fashioned hotel, and I can recall thinking that while Margate was tired and run-down, it still had a certain beauty about it.”
There’s a whiff of the poetic in Diament’s ending up in Margate, working around the corner from Emin. She was – and remains – a hero and the early source of inspiration that led to his first foray into the world of contemporary art collecting in his early 20s.
“She became a recurring inspiration to me,” he says. “I remember buying her early prints and getting such joy from them. That’s when I started saving all my money so I could build up a collection. I’d get home, and it’d be so exciting to have a piece of work that was signed and numbered by her.”
Emin may have been the first contemporary artist Diament lapped up, but he can also lay claim to buying early prints by an unknown street artist starting to make waves at the time – known only as Banksy – as well pieces by notable Brooklyn-based collaboration FAILE.
The majority of prints he discovered through Counter Editions – a platform selling prints and multiples by leading international artists – which, in another delicious twist of fate, Diament has also since gone on to run.
“At first, I bought all these beautiful prints as a form of decoration – that how I really got used to living with art,” he says. “But after buying more contemporary art, it opened up a whole other world, and that’s when I began going to galleries, like Maureen Paley in East London, and seeking out unique art.”
Speaking to Diament – albeit over the phone – it’s not hard to discern a genuine love for his day job, as a gallerist, and indeed the wholesale art world he inhabits. Speaking at a clip, he rattles off influences – as far-reaching as Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo to contemporary painters Luc Tuymans and Joe Bradley – without veering into braggadocio territory.
At the end of last year, he began a co-hosting a podcast with his best friend, and fellow art collector, the actor Russell Tovey. In the first episode of Talk Art, the two – who were introduced by Emin (“She had this hunch we’d get on”) – discuss their predilection to “geeking off” on everything from rare enamel triptychs to new faces at the recent Frieze Art Fair.
“Russell always refers to the two of us as a pair of geeks, because we are both totally obsessed by art,” says Diament. “Saying that, when we both started out in the art world, people were quite suspicious of us, as we perhaps didn’t conform to the norm.”
And what is the norm? This question ties into the primary aim of the podcast – to reach out to young people interested in collecting art, but perhaps don’t feel they have the requisite chops, or income, to pursue. It’s a noble objective; the art world traditionally has a reputation for being prickly and inaccessible to the hoi polloi.
However, the stereotypical collector – fusty gentlemen with a focus on amassing art for the sake of investment and status over posterity and supporting young artists – is falling away, believes Diament.
“In the eight years I’ve been at the Carl Freedman Gallery, I’ve definitely noticed an increase in younger collectors,” he says. “For instance, there are lots of young business people – say, in their 30/early 40s – who are have been introduced to art through the likes of the Royal Academy and young patrons groups.”
It’s hearting to hear that even amid the age of Instagram, whereby everything is disposable, contemporary art thrives. That said, high-quality pieces of work by artists of repute can cost a pretty penny. Might this detract some younger collectors? What price points could be described as normal?
“It’s true, art collecting can be very expensive – especially if you’re buying a unique piece of work,” says Diament. “We’re talking anywhere from £5,000 up to hundreds of thousands of pounds. So, there are people who might save up their money all year to buy just one artwork in the region of £5-10,000.
“But there are loads of these great, critically-interesting galleries in London now where you can probably spend something like £2,000 and you’ll get an amazing painting.”
“Sometimes galleries will allow people – especially if they are clearly passionate and well-read about the subject – to buy art over monthly instalments,” Diament continues. “That’s what I did when I was first staring out. Because at the end of the day, we want artworks to go to people who really care.”
Diament also applauds initiatives such as Tate Young Patrons, which allows those between the ages of 18 and 40 to enjoys the likes of tours and invitations to opening receptions in exchange for a fee starting from £1,200 a year. It serves as an alternative means of access to the art world for younger people.
That said, participation in the art world needn’t be purely transactional.
“You don’t necessarily have to be buying loads of art to have that collector mindset,” he says. “One of the best things you can do is actually just support a young gallery or artist. In doing so, you can become part of their journey, which is a great feeling. It needn’t be totally inaccessible.
“Even if you go to just one exhibition a month, it’s going to improve your life and make it that bit more enjoyable. That’s what it’s all about.”
Diament could talk about the merits of art collecting all day, it would seem. But our time is up. He has a gallery to run.
To read more features which delve behind the scenes of the art world, take a look at the latest edition of Overseas here.