On Our Minds

Wielding Soft Power

Learning from Patrons, Pirates, and Painters

Wielding Soft Power

What do a Renaissance banker, a maritime bandit, and one of the 20th century’s greatest modern artists have in common? More than you might think at first glance. Despite the patron, pirate, and the painter being separated by space, time, philosophy, language, and any other number of indicators you can imagine, Lorenzo de’ Medici, “Calico Jack” Rackham, and Pablo Picasso all benefitted from the skillful wielding of soft power.

What exactly is soft power? One common definition is “the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction,” and was originally coined to describe a an approach to international relations that employed persuasion rather than force. Whether they knew it or not, these disparate figures used elements of soft power — harnessing a strong mission, employing clear messaging, and leveraging the power of community — to create eras marked by transformational change, imbued with lasting impact, and which have inspired ongoing stewardship.

As a planner, I recognize that creating eras marked by transformational change,  imbuing them with lasting impact, and inspiring ongoing stewardship are precisely the kinds of goals schools aim to achieve in their campus development, particularly through their capital campaigns.

Replace “disparate figures” with “independent educational institutions” in the above sentence, and you’ll see why the topic is so, well, topical. As a planner, I recognize that creating eras marked by transformational change, imbuing them with lasting impact, and inspiring ongoing stewardship are precisely the kinds of goals schools aim to achieve in their campus development, particularly through their capital campaigns.

It’s no accident that I’ve chosen examples that touch on architecture, design, and art to explore the elements of soft power. After all, campus planning is about shaping the physical place to send the messages that create an era. And while each of the three figures, the patron, the pirate, and the painter, each employed soft power across multiple dimensions, I’ll use them here to explore the three I see as most potent — mission, messaging, and community, respectively.

The Patron – A Man with a Mission

Lorenzo de’ Medici was a quintessential Renaissance man. The 15th century scion of the wealthy, powerful de’ Medici family, he was a banker, the de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic, a diplomat, a poet, a student of classical antiquity, and a patron with passions in philosophy, art, and architecture. He was also a man with a mission, and it was this dimension of soft power he adroitly wielded to essentially create and inspire the long-term stewardship of the Italian Renaissance, an era of rediscovery of the art, culture, and science of classical Greece and Rome.

Lorenzo’s patronage, both directly through works he commissioned and indirectly through his support for philosophers, artists, and architects, fueled a golden age. For instance, Lorenzo surrounded himself with humanist scholars, including Marsilio Ficino, who set to reconciling Greek and Roman philosophy with Christianity, a delicate mission in the age when the Catholic Church and its interpretation of dogma were not to be trifled with. He had a particularly close relationship with Michelangelo, one of his court artists. Michelangelo literally had a “seat at the table;” living, dining, and partaking in philosophical discussions with the de’ Medici family for five years. Having studied antiquities in Rome with Leon Battista Alberti, Lorenzo developed a keen interest in architecture which was further honed by repeatedly reading Alberti’s treatise on the subject.

Lorenzo promoted the study of ancient philosophy, art, and architecture not simply for their own sakes, but because he believed their inspired ideas could be successfully applied to issues of his own time.

In addition to his expertise in matters of art and architecture, which was sought by aristocratic, ecclesiastical, and public authorities, his leadership role meant that little of civic consequence was undertaken without his approval.

Lorenzo promoted the study of ancient philosophy, art, and architecture not simply for their own sakes, but because he believed their inspired ideas could be successfully applied to issues of his own time. And so it stands to reason that he didn’t simply hand money to scholars, artists, and architects to do with what they wished. Rather, he had an important mission for his patronage, which was to promote the ancient virtues of truth, beauty, and wisdom in the world. He had a clear sense of what art was for, and rewarded and invested in its development.

But the works went far beyond simply demonstrating to his rivals good governance and prosperity under de’ Medici rule. By giving philosophers, artists and architects a deliberate focus and clear mission, the works advertised the virtues, making the great truths visible and comprehensible to the broader public, and ultimately created a city for the populace whose spaces were beautiful, refined, and inviting.

So successful was Lorenzo’s use of soft power expressed through the mission for the arts to convey truth, beauty, and wisdom that it continues to inspire and be stewarded some 400 years later, in our own time. Florence remains a major draw for tourists, scholars, and aspiring artists and architects precisely because we continue to admire its beauty and charm, and because we recognize the extraordinary flowering of artistic talent Lorenzo nurtured to create works that still have the power to awe and inspire.

The Pirate – A Man with a Message

Ranging from 1650 until the late 1720’s, the Golden Age of Piracy and its colorful characters like Captain Kidd, Black Bart, and of course Blackbeard, struck fear in the hearts of mariners and mainlanders alike. Based in the West Indies, these marauders raided ships up and down North America’s eastern seaboard. You wouldn’t think you’d find the desire or the need for soft power among this fearsome bunch, but the pirate “Calico Jack” Rackham not only recognized the importance and the power of messaging, he deployed it exceedingly well.

Calico Jack’s reign on the high seas was a short one, spanning from 1718 to 1720. This period, after the War of Spanish Succession, saw thousands of Britain’s privateers out of a job, many of whom then transitioned to piracy. Which was frankly not much of a move. Essentially, the erstwhile privateers who had been granted letters of marque authorizing them to raid foreign ships during wartime simply continued their action, but now without legal sanction.

Rackham recognized that clear messaging could be instrumental in doing the work of capturing ships for him, without his having to fire a single shot.

If pirates operated without legal sanction, they also operated without the rules that had constrained privateers. For instance, crews of a ship that came under attack by privateers who first resisted but later surrendered were not to be executed, whereas crews that resisted pirate attack would be taken without mercy, regardless of subsequent capitulation.

So what use would soft power be to Calico Jack or any other pirate of the time who could simply take a ship by force in battle? Not having to take a ship by force in battle! Rackham recognized that clear messaging could be instrumental in doing the work of capturing ships for him, without his having to fire a single shot. And he meant to communicate his message via flag.

Privateers of the time were usually required to fly a variation of their country’s flag, to distinguish British privateers from the British navy, for example. As privateering gave way to pirating, ships needed a new way to identify themselves to their prey as a far more dangerous and deadly enemy.

Calico Jack promoted the notion that pirates have their own flag. He, or more accurately, his first mate Karl Starling, is credited with designing the Jolly Roger, a black flag with a white skull above crossed sabers. There is a story about the flag’s creation, perhaps apocryphal, in which Calico Jack was incredibly particular/exacting about the design because he recognized the power of the flag to convey a message. He understood that a pirate’s flag had to be both fearsome and inspiring — fearsome enough to induce ships to surrender, and also an inspiring symbol to rally those who sailed under it. He reasoned that after all, everyone had cannons and swords, but that great art had the power to fell great empires.

The message of the Jolly Roger was clear — surrender without a fight or die. Calico Jack used the strength of this message to shape the preferences of the sailors of those merchant ships, making his capture of the ship and its contents the desirable outcome. His message was not only instrumental in creating the flag, it inspired its promulgation and long-term stewardship. The Jolly Roger is credited with contributing to popularizing similar flag designs including skeletons, hearts, and of course the skull and crossbones. And it has proven an enduring symbol of pirates and piracy in popular culture, from books like Treasure Island, to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and even rides at Disney’s theme parks. Even as pirates have been transformed from fearsome criminals into adventuresome swashbucklers, the Jolly Roger still messages from the mast.

The Painter – A Man with Many Friends

Pablo Picasso is regarded as one of the the most well-known, successful, and innovative artists of the 20th century. Unorthodox and experimental, he painted and sculpted, designed stage sets and created ceramics, was at the forefront of artistic movements from Symbolism to Surrealism and advanced collage as a serious artistic medium. You could say he created the avant-garde. But he didn’t do it alone. Picasso was a man with many friends, who tapped into the skill and influence of his community to propel himself and his art. This use of soft power amplified the impact of a diverse, intergenerational cohort of artists, dealers, and collectors to create a fertile ground for the avant-garde to take root and flourish in its time and into our own.

Take Picasso’s role in the development of the Cubist movement, which united an active, engaged community in its creation, exploration, and advancement. An artistic movement that flourished from the early years of the 20th century through the 1920s, Cubism represented a break from traditional representations of form and embraced a new way of seeing and ultimately presenting the world.

The soft power of Picasso’s community is evident in their transformation of the avant-garde from something inexplicable, strange, and off-putting into something interesting, creative, and highly desirable.

Picasso, the artist most closely associated with the movement, didn’t simply dream up Cubism one day out of whole cloth. Rather it developed from “Ideas in the Air,” with artists being inspired by and collaborating with one another. Picasso was heavily influenced by the work of Paul Cezanne, whose paintings Picasso saw at the 1905 Salon d’Automne. The paintings employed faceted brushwork, flattened space, and simple volumetric shapes, and inspired Picasso to consider new methods for modeling pictorial space. Nor was Picasso the only artist of his generation affected by the work of Cezanne. Georges Braque greatly admired him, painting at L’Estaque, one of Cezanne’s favorite locations, and experimenting with a geometric reduction of forms. Together these two artists, the reserved, private Braque and the outspoken, mercurial Picasso, would create Cubism, in which objects were analyzed, broken, and abstractly reassembled to yield faceted forms seen simultaneously from multiple points of view.

Even their 1907 meeting showcases an interconnected community at work. Braque’s art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, recognized his painter’s interests aligned with that of other artists, Picasso in particular, and arranged for them to be introduced. A spark was struck, and the two artists became friends, rivals, investigators, and instigators of a new form of art. They were inseparable, meeting nightly in one another’s studios to see what the other had done during the intervening day, pushing one another forward.

Art dealers were more than facilitators who introduced artists to others in the avant-garde, they were artists’ advocates, and in effect, their first investors. Their support allowed artists to explore creative endeavors free from financial strain. Picasso’s first dealer, Ambrose Vollard, provided the then-unknown young artist with moral and financial support, mounting Picasso’s first exhibition. Vollard had been Cezanne’s long-time dealer, an artist whose influence on the younger generation of artists can hardly be overstated. However, Vollard was not nearly as interested in investing in art that was untested among collectors. Luckily, the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler emerged as a champion of the experimental, buying Picasso’s arresting Proto-Cubist Demoiselles d’Avignon when the artist was broke, and later representing him.

In yet another link in the chain of community, art dealers connected artists with their market, the collectors. Both Vollard and Kahnweiler counted the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin and Americans Gertrude and Leo Stein among their clients. Shchukin’s collection included some 50 works by Pablo Picasso, including a 1910 Cubist portrait of Vollard. Gertrude and Leo Stein’s collection included a treasure trove of works by luminaries of the modern movement, including Cezanne, Matisse, and of course, Picasso.

This community of dealers and collectors were committed to broadening the accessibility and understanding of the avant-garde, which has flourished to this day. In addition to his role as an art dealer, Kahnweiler was also an accomplished writer who literally “wrote the book” on the artistic movement in his 1920 tome, The Rise of Cubism. Collectors too played a key role introducing avant-garde art to the broader population. In the years before the Russian Revolution, Shchukin opened his home to the public for art viewings every Sunday, introducing Russia to French avant-garde art. The Steins, in addition to being astute collectors of modern art, operated a salon in their atelier that brought together great artwork in a brilliant scene of active foment. The salon functioned as a kind of museum of modern art, the first of its kind, showcasing avant-garde art and literature for the many intellectuals, aristocrats, and students that passed through its doors.

It takes a community to make an idea and move that idea forward. The soft power of Picasso’s community is evident in their transformation of the avant-garde from something inexplicable, strange, and off-putting into something interesting, creative, and highly desirable. Artists, dealers, and collectors rallied around an idea, succeeding despite generational differences, divergent temperaments, and unsteady alliances. It was thanks to this broad, engaged community that Picasso’s unorthodox experimentation didn’t simply wither on the vine. Their interest and ongoing effort ensured the avant-garde amassed a critical mass of consideration and backing, and in doing so transformed art history.

Soft Power and Campus Development

So you can see how Lorenzo de’ Medici’s mission, Calico Jack Rackham’s message, and Picasso’s community of many friends represent effective use of the elements of soft power to help define the common knowledge of their eras. The eras and their narratives were powerful enough to have meaning in their own times and have endured enough to have lasted into our own.

Soft power and its ability to sway and motivate has fascinated me for much of my career. As a planner, I often see it used within the independent school community, particularly in the context of capital campaigns with clear mandates and themes. The capital projects, their programs, placements within the campus setting, and even their image are amplified by state-of-the-school messages, publications, events, activities, and accomplishments the school chooses to highlight.

Although they are important, perhaps even epic events in a school’s history, capital campaigns alone don’t necessarily shape an era without the sustained use of soft power to create common knowledge, solidifying the outcomes in the minds of the community and inspiring the stewardship that allows that era to be carried forward.

Take a Southwestern day school whose mission centered around creating a nurturing environment to support students as they develop the interests and passions essential for lifelong learning. Although this mission values the spaces and places that bring people together, a number of programs with the potential to unite the campus were lacking; particularly those for the performing arts.

The planning expressed the school’s mission in the physical setting by crafting design guidelines that prioritize people and the places they gather. As a key gathering space, the new performing arts center received particular attention. The planning recognized that a consolidated performing arts center for this school had to do more than simply accommodate a whole division in its main performance space, instead conceiving one that could also play to its exterior, an adjacent green large enough for the entire school and then some.

Messaging was woven throughout the planning process, and included the Head of School’s blog celebrating the school’s diverse and nurturing community, a video series highlighting the planning process and its goals, and social media postings crowned with a purpose-designed logo and considered hashtags, among a host of others.

The school leveraged the power of its broad community – from its Board of Trustees, to its publications highlighting community involvement, to the numerous events and activities from alumni gatherings to recruitment efforts the school hosted locally and across the country.

While clearly expressing the mission around which the school has long rallied, supporting it with simple, clear messaging, and leveraging the power of their community has put the capital campaign on track to achieve its fundraising goals ahead of schedule, it’s about so much more than a capital campaign. It’s about more than a branding exercise. And more too than simple event management.

Done well, its about moving a community from one conception of itself to another. Because although they are important, perhaps even epic events in a school’s history, capital campaigns alone don’t necessarily shape an era without the sustained use of soft power to create common knowledge, solidifying the outcomes in the minds of the community and inspiring the stewardship that allows that era to be carried forward.

So look around at the independent school community. You may see institutions focused around leadership, or innovation, or wellness, or any of a myriad of important themes that can guide campus development at independent schools. Look hard enough and you’ll also likely see them operating the levers of soft power to create the eras that inspire over time.

About the Author(s)

Blanchard Group is a nationally recognized architectural firm. The singular focus of our practice is campus planning for independent educational institutions — helping our clients create rich, vital, and enduring places.

Blanchard Group maintains a policy of client anonymity in open forums. This policy safeguards our clients’ interests and preserves our independence.

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