Athena Art Foundation is a new venture that plans to harness Twenty-First Century digital technology, including Tiktok, to bring pre-modern art to a wider audience. We reached out to foundation co-founder Dr Nicola Jennings for some insights on how they planned to utilize this new forum.
What was the inspiration for launching Athena Art Foundation?
My fellow co-founders, Amanda Bradley Petitgas, Loie De Vore, Irene Brooke and I have been looking for some time for a new way of communicating to a wide audience the perspective that great pre-modern art offers us and the pleasure that can come from looking at it. For several decades, this art has been increasingly eclipsed by all things contemporary, both in terms of visits to galleries by domestic audiences and applications to some university courses. While we love much of this new work ourselves, we believe that pre-modern art can tell us a lot – sometimes more – about who we are today and how we might think about the future. For example, in the ongoing debate about how we narrate history, pre-modern art provides vital context. It is clear that the digital sphere offers enormous potential to do this in a way that is environmentally friendly, accessible to a large number of people and relatively inexpensive. So, the idea for setting up Athena was to seek out the best, most innovative material about the great traditions of pre-modern art produced by museums and other sources around the world – adding in some new material produced by us at Athena – and to present it on a digital hub in a fun and engaging way.
In a statement, you were quoted as saying “there is a huge interest in pre-modern art that is not being fully catered for the digital sphere at present.” Can you describe that interest? Where are you seeing it?
The huge appetite for high-quality digital content about art – including pre-modern art – from museum websites, Instagram and YouTube during lockdown proved that people are interested. It also highlighted several issues. One of them was the overwhelming volume of material of variable quality uploaded daily. What people really responded to was, on the one hand, fun initiatives such as the Getty’s challenge to recreate great works using whatever was at hand, cheering them up at the same time as making them look hard at what they were trying to recreate; and, on the other, access to knowledge presented in an appealing way, like the Frick’s ‘Cocktails with a Curator.’ Some of the larger museums are producing brilliant content, but many, especially the smaller ones and those in the developing world, are hamstrung by lack of resources – and this creates huge gaps in the digital offer.
You define ‘pre-modern’ art fairly broadly: ‘arts from around the world from antiquities to Impressionism.’ How will you tackle that complete spectrum?
Although this does sound incredibly – even ridiculously – ambitious, it is more about signaling our intention to feature art from different centuries and different parts of the world. Of course, we won’t be able to tackle it all immediately, and we will be largely dependent on what digital material is available, but our aim is to fill as many gaps as possible by commissioning new material. Again, this will take time, not least to raise the funds we need to do this! But we have already started, commissioning for example a young art historian from Nigeria to write about contemporary ceramic production in her country and how it relates to the great Nok tradition of terracotta sculpture.
Do you have a topic in mind for the inaugural podcast?
We have just recorded our first podcast in which I am joined by Sussan Babaie, professor of the Arts of Iran and Islam at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and Ina Sarikhani, co-founder and director of The Sarikhani Collection, the largest contributor to the current “Epic Iran” exhibition at the V&A. Among the topics we discussed was the extraordinary first room of the exhibition in which some of the objects date back to 3200 BCE, evidence of an incredibly refined and sophisticated culture pre-dating, for example, the Great Pyramids of Ancient Egypt and the rise of Ancient Greece. What is really interesting, too, is that its art contributed a great deal to the material culture which we now think of as Byzantine and Islamic, and that, as the center of a large empire, this was a civilization that was very tolerant of diversity.
Who do you envision will be your primary audience?
We think that our primary audience will be young adults because of their greater willingness to engage with digital content. The truth is, however, that knowledge of audiences and appetite for pre-modern art – whether in terms of visits to galleries or to websites featuring pre-modern art – is still poorly understood. Most of the research on visits in person and online segments audiences in terms of ‘types’ of consumers rather than by age group, and none of it, as far as I know, focuses specifically on pre-modern art. One of the first things we aim to do is conduct some more granular audience research. In the meantime, our hub offers different types and layers of content which reach out to a wide audience, from those just beginning to get interested to art history students and specialists. So, the home page offers the option of going straight to, for example, the ‘exhibitions’ tab, but it also offers a more general and fun way in – ‘Five things to look at this week’ – where we choose topics which might appeal to non-specialists, particularly those from younger age groups.
You’ve announced you’ll be working with art historians and museums; do these partners have a large digital following already?
We are already partnering with the National Portrait Gallery and Fitzwilliam Museum and hope to announce new partnerships over the coming months. These museums, of course, have established digital followings, but we hope that the innovative projects we are developing with them will help them to attract new followers at the same time as helping us to grow our own.
-Madelia Hickman Ring