Global Governance Centre
13 April 2022

Visiting Fellow Spotlight: Julia Bethwaite and her ongoing research on art and power in world politics

Currently a PhD student at Tampere University and a visiting fellow at the Global Governance Centre, Julia Bethwaite situates her work with/on art institutions, elites, and Bourdieusian thinking tools.

Tell me about your PhD?

In my article-based doctoral dissertation, some of which features in New Perspectives and Art & International Affairs, I focus on the Venice Biennale and fine art museums to study how art and power are intertwined. I am curious about the role that these art institutions play in international relations and world politics. I argue that the field of art engages different forms of power across other fields, transcending national borders and engaging both state actors and non-state actors. I analyze ‘Russian’ cases in the international/transnational field of art, as Russian actors have come to occupy an increasingly prominent position in the international art world, illustrated in both public and private projects that cross national borders and engage international professionals. While Russian museums have been internationalizing their activities by opening satellite museums abroad, Russian ‘oligarchs’ have also widened their spheres of action and influence to other countries. I am essentially interested in studying the motivations behind and the nature of such practices, with a focus on art projects that engage both state actors and non-state actors.

Why does it matter where museums are and who funds them for understandings of world politics?

Art museums are not neutral institutions, but, quoting Christine Sylvester’s notion, they are “heavily political, often involved with or implicated in international relations, and savvy about power.” Museums are embedded with symbolic power, acting as instruments to construct and support cognitive structures and shape values. They are thus inherently linked with state power and the field of power. Also, when national art museums establish satellite museums abroad, their world-making capabilities reach new audiences that extend well beyond domestic fields.

Corporate sponsors and private individuals are some of the actors that contribute to world politics, diplomacy, and international cultural relations by supporting state museums. While corporate sponsors may be driven by a desire to boost their image and reputation in foreign markets, they may also be motivated by the possibility of entering new social fields to accumulate and convert different forms of capital. For some actors, offering generous financial support can also be read as an attempt to accumulate symbolic capital and legitimacy, with the aim of strengthening their positions in the fields of power. Thus, while museums participate in world-making, they can also be utilized as sites for the strategic accumulation of material and symbolic resources to affirm or improve actors’ positions in different social fields.

Empirically, methodologically, how are you working on this?

I am a firm believer in going to the field to conduct field studies. Accordingly, my studies have brought me to Venice, Malaga, Shanghai, and Moscow, to name some of the central cities that figure in the case studies I examine in my doctoral dissertation. I have also volunteered at theManifesta biennial in Zurich as well as at the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, and I have done an internship at a leading art auction house in Moscow. The “hanging out” approach, as elaborated by Deepak Nair, has been a fruitful method to get a sense of what is going on. It has brought me, for example, to the exclusive pre-opening days at the Venice Biennale, infused with numerous vernissage parties, which bring together elite actors around the global. I have collected interviews for each case study in my PhD, with both state actors and non-state actors, which have been essential in widening and deepening my understanding about the research topic. I apply Bourdieusian concepts as thinking tools to make sense of the complex phenomena at hand and to show the relationality of different actors, fields and forms of capital. One of the objectives of my dissertation is to explore how the interests of ‘Russian’ actors resonate with wider power dynamics that are not limited to and therefore go beyond national boundaries. Here, Bourdieu’s methodology can help to analyze the nature of actors’ position-takings and conceptualize the role of art in international relations and world politics.

Julia Bethwaite square
Museums are embedded with symbolic power, acting as instruments to construct and support cognitive structures and shape values.
Julia Bethwaite

What kind of cultural capital must one have in order to follow the transnational art scene? What are some of the challenges and unexpected intrigues of working with/on international art elites?

Of course, having cultural capital in its objectified state in the form of a magnificent art collection helps to follow the transnational art scene and become integrated to it, but I’d highlight the role of embodied cultural capital. It helps to know a few languages and be genuinely interested in art. When working with international art elites, the way you walk and talk does have an effect, too. When working on elites, it can equally be a challenge to gain access to the otherwise exclusive social circles. It is thus important to be creative, keep your eyes open, and seek opportunities as you mingle in the art world, even after your workday is over.

How did you become interested in this topic? How would you describe your intellectual background, in disciplinary terms?

As one of my hobbies, I have always enjoyed art. I moved to Moscow in January 2014 as an exchange student from Tampere University in Finland to spend the last semester of my Master’s studying at the Higher School of Economics. During my exchange studies, I noticed that private money fueled Moscow’s art scene. There were art galleries and art museums founded by oligarchic elites and glamorous vernissages that only a select few were invited to. However, the exclusive art practices of Russian elites were not only happening in Moscow but also in other cities such as London and Venice. I started thinking about the motifs behind these practices and links to the international art world. I became curious in examining the role of non-state actors in cultural diplomacy, but I also wanted to harness a more multi-actor perspective by applying a Bourdieusian prism.

In disciplinary terms, my trajectory has been one of multidisciplinarity – or even a transdisciplinarity. For my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, I majored in Russian philology and minored in Political Science. For my Bachelor’s and Master’s theses, I used Bourdieu’s concepts to analyze representations of the Russian elite. During my Bachelor’s studies in 2010, I started to work as a research assistant for an Academy of Finland funded research project that studied how geopolitics is taught in Russian universities. Until I started my doctoral studies, I worked as a research assistant in the clusters of Foreign policy and Diversification of economy at the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies, funded by the Academy of Finland. Currently, I’m doing my PhD in International Relations and I work as an Academic Coordinator of the multidisciplinary Master’s Degree Programme in Leadership for Change in Tampere University.

Why is the Global Governance Centre an interesting place for you to be?

The Global Governance Centre brings together scholars that have made significant contributions to conceptual discussions in IR. And I have noticed there are several people who also apply Bourdieusian concepts in their research! I am interested in meeting colleagues to exchange thoughts and discuss, for example, their application of the concept of power and their approaches to study phenomena that transcend national boundaries and engage different fields. As I am currently working on the last article of my dissertation as well as on the dissertation’s wider conceptual discussion – that is, the introduction part of my PhD – I am curious to keep learning and developing my thought further concerning, for example, international and transnational spaces, elites, and power dynamics. The Global Governance Centre provides an inspiring community and environment for that.



Julia Bethwaite is a Doctoral Researcher in International Relations at the Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University. Her research interests cover the role of art and power in international relations and world politics, practices of cultural diplomacy and international cultural relations, elite networks, and interaction of state and non-state actors within the transnational space of art. In her doctoral dissertation, she analyzes power dynamics related to Venice Biennale and fine art museums by focusing on Russian actors. Besides her doctoral research, she is the Academic Coordinator of the Master’s Degree Programme in Leadership for Change at the Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University.