Somerville resident Tamar Avishai has two longtime loves in her life: art and public radio. You can often find her at the MFA, giving 15-minute lectures in which she expertly ropes unsuspecting people into a painting’s context, with all the intrigue and human connection that history can offer.
Her bi-weekly podcast, “The Lonely Palette,” was born out of these so-called Spotlight Talks, in which the first thing she does is point the microphone at museum-goers and ask: “What do you see?”
Here, Avishai tells us about the inspiration for her project and the impossibility of condensing a painting like The Mona Lisa into a 20-minute podcast.
Scout Somerville: What’s your podcast about?
Tamar Avishai: The premise of the podcast is making art accessible to the masses, going one painting at a time. Art history has two words associated with it all the time: It’s either boring, or it’s snooty. My goal is to deliver art history in short little digestible bites that make it as interesting and compelling as the history that it’s bearing witness to.
SS: Can you kind of run me through the arc of an episode?
TV: When I give those talks, I also interview people—so you know, I’m working for the museum, but I’ll bring my gear. And I’ll ask people who have never seen the painting before to just describe it. I edit that into the beginning of every episode, so that listeners can kind of develop in their mind’s eye what they think the painting looks like. It’s two minutes of that, then my little intro music, and then like a 15-minute audio essay.
You have to give the good stuff at the beginning; you have to hook people. And then they’ll stay because they keep wanting to know what happens, and then you can tie it back into the piece! So it’s like good storytelling… except with fine art, which people don’t expect to be that interesting.
SS:What are you working on right now?
TV: I’ve actually been chipping away at the Mona Lisa episode for months now. I keep it on the back burner when I produce other episodes—it keeps eluding my grasp. How do you pare down the most famous painting in the world to a 20-minute podcast? How do you say something new while still doing the object justice? How do you separate the celebrity from the fact that it’s just a puny little portrait? It’s a real work in progress.
More broadly, though, I’m coming off the high of a successful Patreon [crowdfunding] launch. It’s still a thrill to know that people are giving me money to something that gives me so much joy. I’m also working closely with a friend and collaborator from the Soirée, Wade Roush, to partner up and create our own podcast platform. The project is called Hub & Spoke, and though it’s currently still very much in its infancy, we hope to have it ready to launch within the year.
SS: What are your favorite podcasts?
TV: The New York Times’ “The Daily,” “Civics 101,” “Nancy,” “Soonish,” “Why Oh Why,” “Freakonomics” and, my most beloved of all, “Again With This: Beverly Hills 90210.”
New episodes of Avishai’s podcast land every third Wednesday and are available here for your listening pleasure!