Harmony Academy Strikes Accord

Carla Dirlikov Canales hosts cultural exchange masterclass series with Chinese artists
A screenshot of a Harmony Academy master class: two presenters sit at a table, where they discuss puppetry.

Throughout her career, Carla Dirlikov Canales has used the arts and cultural diplomacy to enact change and promote connection between cultures. As Professor of Practice in Cultural Diplomacy and Senior Fellow at The Edward R. Murrow Center for a Digital World, she brought these dialogues to The Fletcher School. Most recently, her commitment to artistic exchange reached a new level. In 2022, she was nominated by President Joe Biden to be the first senior advisor and envoy for cultural exchange at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Canales understands that artistic exchanges have tremendous potential to promote intercultural understanding both domestically and internationally.

“When we look at the arts in the U.S—Hollywood, music, or the more traditional art forms, symphonies and the visual arts—we have a history that’s tied to not only democracy but also the values of democracy such as freedom,” said Canales. “That message resonates now more than ever in terms of flexing our own soft power muscle and reflecting the Biden administration’s goals for foreign policy.”

Looking to situations where democracy is at risk, Canales sees that showcasing America’s deep commitment to democracy and freedom through artistic expression is just one way in which the U.S. can walk the walk.

“Cultural exchange implies a two-way street. It’s not just about flexing a muscle or showing the world our many diverse artistic talents,” she said. “It’s about learning, and that’s where I see a tremendous opportunity for growth for our own country, constituents, and artists. Through cultural exchanges, we can learn from other countries, other traditions, artists, and artistic heritages, and that resonates within the diverse communities in the U.S. This is a moment for us to learn from others and celebrate the diversity that is in the U.S. through that learning.”

Her framework employs four buckets. Cultural diplomacy engages in artistic exchange with a particular end goal. Cultural exchanges, by contrast, do not operate with such a concrete agenda, instead focusing on learning and sharing. The other two buckets she considers are advocacy—knowledge sharing when it comes to marginalized cultures or communities—and work with identity—something she thinks of often as the daughter of a Mexican mother and Bulgarian father.

“This is really about communicating. How can you share with another person, who maybe doesn’t come from exactly the same view or identity or culture as you, something about yourself? That is a fundamental desire that I think all humans have. We’re all going through this process of understanding and exploring our human condition.”

While she’s been busy at the NEA, in her capacity as Fletcher faculty, Canales recently led an exchange project through the Cultural Diplomacy Initiative (CDI), a project established by the Murrow Center in 2022 to activate the power of culture as a tool to build bridges. As part of this endeavor, and in cooperation with The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, Canales launched The Harmony Academy: A Series of Masterclasses About Chinese Culture. Through five masterclass events, participants in the U.S. learned about China’s rich artistic heritage at a time when contact has been limited through the pandemic and political tensions have risen.

The first artist, the nonagenarian Conductor Maestra Xiaoying Zheng, gave an hourlong presentation on opera in English. The final artist Lihui Chen, a puppet master, walked participants through a UNESCO preserved site for puppetry, and his troupe performed two shows across a 12-hour time difference. Canales sees these contributions as a true gift.

“I think it’s at moments when two countries are not on the best of terms that cultural diplomacy and exchange are of the utmost importance,” she said, pointing to ping-pong diplomacy, which initially opened channels between the U.S. and China in the 1970s.

Over the last year, efforts through the CDI activated over 600 participants from countries all over the world to engage in intercultural learning opportunities. Afterwards, Canales heard from several participants about the value of human connection and direct contact with Chinese artists.

“For me, it’s been one of the best examples of why this work is so important,” she said. “We really do need to remember that we’re all human.”

Through all of her work, Canales continues to be inspired by the Fletcher community.

“Fletcher is a space where cultural exchange is taking place every day, in ways people might not even realize. It’s a fertile soil for intellectual, artistic, and cultural exchange, through food, poetry, stories, and music,” she said. “My biggest hope is that each student carries that on through their work. Each student will be a leader—there’s no question about that.”

“The real superpower of the arts is its capacity to act as a gateway to unleashing the imagination. It’s when you can close your eyes during a song and see something that doesn’t exist that all of a sudden you have a new goal to work towards. We as humans need that. That’s where our innovations have come from—from the internet to fire or electricity. If nothing else, I encourage bold and unabashed imagination because the future is dependent on it. The students of Fletcher are capable of so, so much.”

Read more about the Murrow Center for a Digital World.

DISCLAIMER CLAUSE: The views expressed are those of the subject and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Endowment of the Arts or the United States of America.