Art history takes on podcasting: Tamar Avishai and The Lonely Palette

Avishai admiring and preparing for interviews Photo credit: Tamar Avishai

Tamar Avishai is a Boston native who is enthralled by art. Avishai studied at the University of Toronto and Tufts University where she furthered her education receiving a master’s in art history. Following her education, she became a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University for five years.

Shortly after her start at Harvard, Avishai became an adjunct lecturer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) where she would consistently deliver talks on varying objects throughout the museum. Additionally, she’d double as a Gallery Lecturer, sharing hour-long talks. It was during her time at the MFA that she began recording her podcast, The Lonely Palette returning art history to the masses one painting at a time.

The Lonely Palette is regarded as one of the top art history podcasts and sports 61 episodes with additional bonus extended playlists. Avishai has covered artists such as Edgar Degas, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Ansel Adams, Anselm Kiefer, Roy Lichtenstein and Claude Monet to name just a few. She’s also covered a number of works that have been as recent as 2021 and other works that date to the 15th century and as far back as the Song Dynasty, 12th c. C.E.

Below are some answers provided by Avishai as she graces the reader with a perspective of a maturing art critic, a tuned podcaster on art history, and a woman entranced in art and its majesty.

The responses below have been edited for clarity and simplicity.

Scroll: What is your background in art? Where does that affinity stem from?

Avishai: I thought I was going to be a studio art major. I took art history instead and fell in love with it. I wasn’t as moved to create something of my own, but art history moved me. I was tapping into something more intellectual. Asking myself, “Why did they paint that?” or “Why did they draw that?” How artists channeled their historical moment into what they created, it was more exciting to me than producing my own art.

Scroll: How did you come up with the idea for the podcast? Where did that begin?

Avishai: Sean Cole, producer for This American Life is a friend of a friend who mentioned it while having coffee in Brooklyn. He’d said he never heard of an art history podcast, and I thought my spotlight talks overlapped so well so, I just put together a pilot to experiment. I was lucky enough to have started in 2016, the earlier stages of podcasting … and was able to make a dent.

Scroll: How long have you been doing the podcast? What were the beginning stages like?

Avishai: Seven years in May. I had been working at the MFA for a few years, giving spotlight talks on artworks. I wanted to get into audio professionally, and the talks set the stage for the podcast. By the time the podcast began, I’d been teaching for years as well and knew what buttons to press with certain topics.

Scroll: What’s been your favorite artwork to cover, your favorite interview?

Avishai: The episode on Anselm Kiefer’s “Margarete” and “Sulamith” was special. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art commissioned an episode for the podcast, and I asked them to cover the panels and they agreed. It was thrilling and scary. I’d anticipated being affected by them because you always are when you study something and see it in person but when I finally saw them, I fell into both of them.

“Margareta” is so sad, it has an emptiness accompanied by a little bit of life. “Sulamith” is really unsettling. It’s eerie and has a distant flicker in a huge hallway. They’re framed to be kitty-corner to each other so when you sit in front, you’re surrounded by them. I knew I had to tell the story of these works. I worked on the script every day for two and a half months. It felt like I hadn’t gone through a process like that since my first child. It was the birth of something I couldn’t believe I was able to put out in the world.

Scroll: How was the episode received?

Avishai: It received a warm reception, won a reward — which was very cool — and overall meant so much to me. From the poem, “Margarete” (Paul Celan) … all the way to the panels and importance of the story. All of that came together into something extraordinary even though the process was excruciating.

Scroll: What’s your process behind talking to people in front of the art?

Avishai: The script is always different, it’s the hard part. It’s sophisticated. It’s whatever the painting requires. I try to start at the beginning to help guide the biographical information that gets slotted in. It needs to flow. I ask people to imagine they are on the phone with someone they love and they ask what you’re looking at — you have to describe it for someone who can’t see it.

Scroll: What’s the process of choosing which artworks to cover?

Avishai: It’s a little willy-nilly. One aspect is what I like, and another is to challenge myself to cover an artist I should know more about but never studied. It’s a good opportunity to educate everyone. If I get a museum commission, I do whatever piece they ask me to do and love the challenge. American Gothic by Grant Wood was tricky for instance. Trying to add to the narrative that people already have in their head is hard.

Scroll: What do you hope to accomplish in the future with The Lonely Palette?

Avishai: I feel so accomplished with it so far and staying that course would be great. Gaining new listeners and using it as a springboard into my next projects. Collaborations are in the works which should be entertaining too.

Scroll: What should people know about art and museums?

Avishai: Museums are coherently conservative with a lowercase “c.” They conserve art. Sometimes it gets them in hot water when society goes through a moment of high-speed progressive change. Asking museums to fundamentally reassess what they are in terms of the communities they represent or the location they’re in is hard.

‘Why are there so many paintings from white men from the 1700s and 1800s?’ It’s because there are. It’s the art we have. It makes us better, liberal-minded people to understand history and its constraints and what progress has actually looked like. Not to approach change as it hasn’t been enough but rather look at the reality of what the progress has been.

The MFA keeps the Founding Fathers up not because they’re rare and precious or represent an aristocracy of wealth, but because these are important objects about American history. They’ve also subtly added a large empty frame that says, “We can’t hang the art of people who were never given the opportunity to create it. We have this frame as a way of recognizing what doesn’t exist.” There’s a real motivation when people are angry to tear down … but not as much to create. Creation needs to happen too. History will decide if today’s art is good. Respond and make something, don’t just judge.

Scroll: What is the meaning of art, contemporarily speaking?

Avishai: If we are looking at art in our moment, we have to appreciate that it was created in its moment. Look through the eyes of its moment and recognize what was revolutionary. We tend to get angry with the past and not see its incremental progress. We have an unearned spot in history where we happen to know how something ended, that we are allowed to judge the people who lived through it with any smugness. I don’t think that’s fair. Imagine someone judging you in the future for something you didn’t respond to. It’s unfair. Of course, there have been negative figures, but to take social morals through art is not historically sound.

I would hope people use the opportunity of stolen art to appreciate what we have. What we lose, should make you pay attention to what we have.

Tamar Avishai with an individual meditating on a work from Mark Rothko
Tamar Avishai with an individual meditating on a work from Mark Rothko Photo credit: Tamar Avishai

Scroll: What do you want people to know about The Lonely Palette?

Avishai: All art is interesting. Everything created has a story that was made by a person and every person has an interesting story if you know where to look. All art ever was, is people living through their moments. It’s how we connect to the past.