Soft power in the arts

Natasha Mian

Natasha Mian, 16 October 2019

Culture Counts’ new Client Manager Natasha Mian shares some reflections on the history of museums and their changing role and influence today. Natasha has worked in a variety of arts and cultural organisations in Melbourne and London, most recently in Development roles where her interest in advocacy for the arts has grown and lead her to join the Culture Counts team.

Soft power is a term usually used in International Relations to describe a country’s ability to achieve foreign policy goals through influence, rather than military or economic force. This term seems very broad and abstract when applied to the influence of arts and cultural organisations, but I came across these ideas through a book by Gail Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg and it started a chain of thought that has led me to join the team at Culture Counts. I’d love to share these thoughts with you here.

Political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term Soft power in the 1990s. Where hard power is deployed through coercion; threat of force or economic sanction, soft power resources are intangible, defined by Nye as having three pillars; political values, culture and foreign policy. Soft power builds through networks, information sharing and dialogue. Culture has always been an influential force, but where it was once used as a beacon of hard power, its role as a pillar of soft power makes it all the more important to understand and communicate its influence.

The concept of the museum as a modern institution was formed in Renaissance cities through the rise of ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ or Wunderkammers. These were rooms filled with items of ‘wonder’ – natural history items, religious relics and art works organised and displayed from the perspective of their owner, personally placing them at the centre of this visual demonstration of worldliness and wealth. Centuries later the practice of art collecting was still a tool of hard power demonstrating wealth and grandeur. Royal houses and wealthy merchants commissioning artworks while amassing a large international collection was an impressive feat. The Uffizi museum grew from the collection owned by the house of Medici after it was bequeathed to the city of Florence. The Louvre museum is established from the collection of Philip II, the Hermitage from Empress Catherine II. As impressive collections around the world moved from the private domain to the public, this personal instrument of hard power became a national symbol of economic power and military strength (in the case where artworks were taken as trophies from conquered territories). The perspective from which these displays were curated often emphasised a dominant culture or class. Early natural history museums and their forays into anthropology and phrenology displays are a humbling example of this.

Today’s museums have moved towards a very different model. The International Council of Museums has recently published a renewed definition of the museum to reflect its contemporary role. Accordingly, museums are democratising, inclusive and transparent. They are a place for ‘critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures’ and ‘work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve…exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world.’ This transition from the inward-facing museum as a fortress of power display, to an outward-facing inclusive, transparent place of partnership recognises this shift into the soft power field. Museums have become less a space of absolute truths and single perspectives and more a place of dialogue, responsive and reflective of their audiences.

We have not only seen this change and democratisation of the museum space but also the rise of community spaces, artist-run spaces, dance studios, theatres, festivals and other cultural organisations taking part in this dialogue. This combination of arts and cultural organisations of all sizes creates an ecosystem of soft power within communities, cities, states and countries. In our work at Culture Counts, we see the influence organisations make through cultural stimulation, creating positive social connections, and enhancing sense of community and belonging. Through this ecosystem there is also a growing network of organisations that is able to create international dialogue and exchanges of information through exchanges of culture. As exhibitions, plays and musicals tour, they bring with them their influence and cultural diplomacy to an international scale.

 In November last year, The British Council released an article on Soft Power Superpowers that explores global trends in soft power today. Countries can also be ranked based on their soft power, using a set of defined measures. Whilst there is growing recognition of soft power on an international scale, it is also important to recognise its local influence. Soft power is an intangible force, but incredibly powerful, nonetheless. The ability to measure, communicate and advocate for an organisation’s influence is the ability to engage and harness its soft power. 

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