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Detail from Qaran Unhorses Barman, ca.  1525-35, Tabriz, Iran.  Ink, watercolour and gold on paper.  The Sarikhani Collection, I.  MS.  4025.

Athena Art Foundation Launch


To celebrate Athena’s official launch on 28 June 2021, it will host a lecture by one of its trustees, Professor Sussan Babaie, on some of the magnificent 16th century illuminated manuscripts of the Shahnama (Persian Book of Kings) which are currently on display at the Epic Iran exhibition at London’s V&A. Sussan’s talk will be followed by a short Q&A.

This month sees the launch of the Athena Art Foundation, a new venture that will harness twenty-first century digital technology to bring pre-modern art to a wider audience. One of its founders, Nicola Jennings, says ‘There is a huge interest in pre-modern art that is not being fully catered for the digital sphere at present. There are museum and specialist websites, but Athena will be offering something that does not exist right now, deftly eliding scholarship with entertainment, while also pursuing a mission to educate and explain.’

Pre-modern art encompasses all arts from around the world from antiquities to Impressionism. Jennings adds: ‘Through a variety of digital strategies, we will engage audiences with the world’s great artistic traditions, inviting people to discover and learn about works from across the centuries which continue to be as relevant now as when they were first produced. We passionately believe that looking closely at this art helps us to reflect on life today and imagine the world tomorrow.’

Jennings, Associate Lecturer at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, will work with fellow founders, art historians Dr Irene Brooke, Loie de Vore and Amanda Bradley Petitgas, who is the chair of the board of trustees. Athena is already working with several major museums and educational establishments, including the National Portrait Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and will be forging collaborative relationships both in the UK and internationally in the coming months.

Through its website, Athena, which is a not-for-profit organisation, will offer innovative virtual and in-person exhibitions, podcasts, experiences, events, publications, and courses relating to pre-modern art from around the world. It will also upload its own monthly podcasts with artists, collectors, scholars and curators and use Instagram and TikTok to engage with a wide audience.

Its activities will include: 

Living Portraits’, a series of short films enabling the subjects of historical paintings to reveal themselves through real-time motion capture and storytelling and using digital technology to retain each artwork’s painterly surface. With themes such as identity and marginalisation, the objective is to engage young audiences with little-known figures in collections of historic art. The prototype will focus on 19th century bareknuckle boxer and butcher Jem Belcher whose portrait aged 19 forms part of the National Portrait Gallery Collection. The sitter speaks to us in a monologue by a young writer and voiced by an actor from the National Youth Theatre, while the image is subtly manipulated to appear as if to come alive.

Creating an intimate connection to the past, highlighting the role historical paintings can play in understanding the present, and presenting portraits as compelling works of art, the prototype aims to provide a model for digital engagement which can be used by other collections. Athena Art Foundation and Colnaghi Foundation are co-producing the prototype with Megaverse, which specialises in combining interactive and immersive technologies with storytelling, the National Portrait Gallery, and Edem Kelman, a young writer and director whose recent short film Princess was longlisted Best Short Film at BIFA 2020.

Athena Platform, a publicly accessible site which hosts virtual collaborative exhibitions, enabling curators from museums around the world to work together to mount exhibitions on under-researched works and topics. Athena is developing this platform with Moyosa Media who recently produced the National Gallery’s Director’s Choice virtual exhibition, and Vastari whose online platform and bespoke services enable research, sourcing and collaboration for exhibitions who operate at the forefront of innovation in the cultural industries and power the world’s largest online platform for exhibition collaborations. Athena is also working with the Fitzwilliam Museum and Colnaghi Foundation on a series of podcasts which will be launched in the early Autumn.

Art2Live, a series of five short part-animated and low-budget films for TikTok and Instagram with a calming, meditational feel, telling stories about great art — from the weird visions of Hieronymus Bosch to the serene landscapes of Shen Zhou — that can help us to change our ideas and to see life in a more positive light. With voice-overs by influential YouTubers like Luke Cutforth (who has already used his various social media channels to reach out to viewers experiencing mental health issues), the films will be animated by Cutforth. Viewers will be invited to share on their own social media feeds artworks which have helped them, using the hashtag #art2live with the aim of promoting agency and engagement as well as building a sense of community around the initiative.

Colnaghi Studies Journal: Irene Brooke and the Athena team will continue to work with Colnaghi Foundation to produce the journal which Brooke and Nicola Jennings have been editing for the past four years. The journal will appear on both Colnaghi Foundation and Athena’s websites. They will also be shared with organisations campaigning around young people and mental health like those involved in “Heads Together” as well as uploaded to Luke’s YouTube and Twitter feeds (which have 800,000 subscribers).


Athena Art Foundation
, United Kingdom

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