The London Magazine

Athena Art Foundation

The Athena Art Foundation is a new educational, not-for-profit digital hub whose aim is to attract patronage to ascertain and understand artistic works from across the years. The foundation fervidly believes that ‘looking closely at this art helps us to reflect on life today and imagine the world tomorrow.’

What was the inspiration for starting the Athena Art Foundation? 

Dr. Nicola Jennings: As people who look at great pre-modern art every day for both work and pleasure, we are passionate about enabling others to discover what it has to offer. It is encouraging to see the huge appetite for high-quality digital content about art over the past year, but it has also highlighted three issues. The first is the sheer volume of material being uploaded to museum websites, Instagram and YouTube that no individual has the time to sift through. The second is that the content getting the most attention is presented in innovative and exciting ways, offering people fresh perspectives on, and sometimes respite from, current events and personal crises. The third is that pre-modern art is vital to provide context on many current debates and that the digital sphere offers enormous potential for helping museums to do this. Some of the larger museums are starting to tackle these issues and producing brilliant content, but many, especially the smaller ones and those in the developing world, are hamstrung by lack of funding – and this creates huge gaps in the digital offer. So our mission is to seek out the best material, presenting it on the Athena hub in a fun and engaging way, as well as to develop a new collaborative platform that makes it easier and less expensive for museums around the world to create and share content. 

Amanda Bradley. Courtesy of Athena Art Foundation.

Do you believe that there is an interest in pre-modern art that is not being satisfied because of the current focus on contemporary art?  

Amanda Bradley:  Yes, and I think this is in many ways driven by the inflated prices and bloated culture of the contemporary art market. Most art history courses are now heavily weighted towards the contemporary, and lecturing posts concerned with old art are being replaced by more zeitgeisty topics. It’s a shame because core subjects are now being omitted from the art historical canon – a bit like doing a Physics BA without learning about special relativity. As a consequence, teaching has become more theory-led rather than object-driven. Connoisseurship has become a bit of a dirty word, but the act of looking is an essential part of studying art history.

What digital strategies will you employ to engage audiences? 

Dr. Nicola Jennings: Our main strategy is to use our hub to pull together the most compelling and exciting exhibitions, podcasts, events, and publications, and set them out in a way that is engaging and easy to navigate, including well-established formula like ‘Five things to look at this week’. We have worked with a brilliant designer, Diego Fortunato, to create a space that looks great but is also easy to keep up to date, and we have the great Brains Trust and Museums group advising us. We are also using social media platforms such as Instagram. During my previous role at Colnaghi Foundation, I identified how engaged people could become with pre-modern art when they saw its relevance and the light it could shed on current events. And we are beginning to use TikTok to reach out to younger age groups. For example, in a series of one-minute films about how great pre-modern art can alleviate mental distress. They are being directed by Luke Cutforth, a social media influencer who has used his various platforms to talk about mental health.

Dr. Irene Brooke. Courtesy of Athena Art Foundation.

Is there an educational side to the Athena Art Foundation? Are you guided by a mission to explain?

Dr. Irene Brooke: Yes, Athena’s mission is at its core educational. Our aim is to offer resources that will engage a wide variety of audiences with varying levels of knowledge, with art produced in different cultures around the world before the twentieth century. For those who are curious but don’t yet have a deep level of knowledge, we will provide tools and content which explore topics in clear and engaging ways, and seek to demonstrate how examining the art of the past can help us to better understand our present, both bad and good. For those with a greater degree of knowledge, and indeed for scholars, we will act as a platform where they can find information about new and ongoing research, as well as important scholarly articles in open-access publications like the ‘Colnaghi Studies Journal’, which Athena produces.

What sort of people are you hoping to attract to the Athena Art Foundation? Are they people who know a lot about art from that period, or is it a more general audience? 

Amanda Bradley: We aim to attract the generalist and the specialist, and the website is layered as such. You can find easily digestible picks of the week, many of which are linked to current issues – old art is still relevant! But we will also feature links to scholarly talks and conferences, as well as the ‘Colnaghi Studies Journal’ which we co-produce with the Colnaghi Foundation, and features new, peer-reviewed research. We will soon be launching a virtual exhibition platform, where scholars and curators can share research and opinions – a very environmentally friendly way to stage otherwise expensive and geographically complicated shows. 

Loie De Vore. Courtesy of Athena Art Foundation.

What are your plans for the future of the foundation?  

Loie De Vore: In addition to expanding our network of contributing museums and scholars, we are actively working on developing a number of future projects. We are especially excited about the idea of creating a simple digital platform where curators from different museums can work together to put on virtual exhibitions at the same time as having ongoing conversations about the works involved, with the public able to ask questions via a chat room. Much less expensive and environmentally friendly than in-gallery exhibitions, this platform would make it possible for many more curators to share their scholarship and open up to the public a rich new seam of art history. We are also in the early stages of forming clubs, first in New York and London, to get more people directly involved at the same time as supporting our fundraising. These clubs will give the curious privileged access to the many facets of the art world: workshops on conservation, talks with curators and art market leaders, and more. We also hope to organize annual trips with brilliant scholars to visit exclusive collections around the world. 

For more information and to see digital exhibitions, listen to podcasts and attend talks, visit their website.

Connect with the foundation on Instagram here.

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