Silkroad, Boston music institution founded by Yo-Yo Ma, announces new executive director
When Ben Hartley first attended a Silkroad performance, he was blown away. It was 2007 and he had a seat at one of their shows in Boston. By the time it was over, Hartley was filled with awe. "The stories behind the work ... told the possibilities of when worlds converge," Hartley said. "I remember feeling incredibly uplifted by it."
Now, 14 years later, Hartley will join the organization as its new executive director on May 15. "It's really like a dream come true," he said. "Being able to work with Silkroad musicians, artistic director Rhiannon Giddens ... it's incredible."
Prior to joining Silkroad, Hartley spent decades building and leading cultural organizations, most recently serving as the executive director of the National Arts Club in New York City where he helmed initiatives to encourage public interest in fine art. "My whole life has really been around supporting the arts, supporting artists, working with artists and exploring opportunities to bring that to a broader public," Hartley said.
Silkroad was founded in 1998 by internationally renowned musician Yo-Yo Ma. The organization employs music and art as modes of cultural collaboration and exchange, exploring the nuanced experiences and stories of populations whose voices are often overlooked or underrepresented. As executive director, Hartley hopes to continue that mission. “Silkroad is at a fascinating juncture," he points out. "It's a relatively young institution, only 25 years old. The important part now is what does it look like 25 years from now? What does it become? What does it do? What is it inspiring in audiences?"
Hartley hopes to emphasize, to both current and new audiences, that what Silkroad does is more than produce and perform music. "It also does incredible work with education programs and social justice programs," he noted. "And so my job as executive director is really to try and coordinate all of those, to find support for those and to help those ideas come out to audiences around the world."
It's a continuation of Hartley's work of connecting audiences with art, particularly those who may be siloed from accessing it. "I've spent my life creating opportunities where people can, regardless of their backgrounds or their capabilities, are able to enjoy the arts," he said. "The arts should be accessible for everybody. It's something that defines us as cultures, as people. It's something that is essential, I believe, to life."
One of the major projects Hartley will take on as executive director is the execution of the first national tour of “American Railroad,” which is scheduled to debut in November 2023. Through newly commissioned music, a documentary and more, the multimodal project will explore the interconnected stories of Black, Chinese, Indigenous, Irish and other immigrant contributions to the U.S. transcontinental tailroad. Like the ancient trade route Silkroad is named after, the American railroad system was an artery connecting numerous communities and cultures.
Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens, who envisioned "American Railroad," said of Hartley in a press release, "From his ability to build artistic aligned relationships to his experience in strategic planning, I look forward to seeing what new paths can be forged for Silkroad with Ben at the helm.”
The show is an important starting place for difficult dialogue around race in America, Hartley said. "It also allows us to start to have conversations that may be difficult, starts to allow us to exchange ideas that maybe we haven't had before. And any time music and the arts can help us with those conversations while bringing joy and creativity is when we all win."
It all goes back to the driving ethos behind Silkroad and its conception — that the exchange of cultures, of experiences, of stories can help build important bridges between people and communities. It's what caused Hartley to fall in love with the organization in the first place.
"There are many musical ensembles in the world," he said. "But this has a singular vision and a singular point of passion that is captivating and is necessary and is exciting."