By Tela Zasloff
North Adams was recently chosen by the hip website PolicyMic.com as one of the 15 best cities nationwide for young artists. This seems to represent a success for many who have been working for years to change the city’s image from one of a decaying industrial center to an up and coming center for art and artists. One of those who is making that happen is Jonathan Secor, Director of the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center. We sought him out to learn more about the work that he does.
When asked what he would like to be called in the arts world, Jonathan Secor answered immediately, “Arts Facilitator.” According to one website, Facilitation itself is an art, and good facilitators in the arts world must be “authentic, creative, responsible, and passionate” in building “the Creative Community.” Secor, throughout his career, has demonstrated those qualities, especially in his focus on building and accomplishing a creative community here in the northern Berkshires, to our long-term benefit.
Secor’s list of accomplishments is long. Coming from a career as a performing arts producer, director and manager in New York and New Haven, he moved to MASS MoCA in the late 1990’s, where he served as Director of Performing Arts and consultant. He then moved to MCLA in 2004, hired by President Grant to connect the college to the cultural community and enrich the art world of the whole region. He created the MCLA Berkshire Cultural Resource Center (BCRC), a collaborative project of MCLA, MASS MoCA, and the City of North Adams, providing professional development training, resources and support to the artists, art managers and creative workers of Berkshire County. BCRC consists of five major programs—Gallery 51, featuring art exhibits of both local and international artists, including MCLA students and emerging artists; MCLA Presents!, a year of arts events and performances sponsored by the college; Tricks of the Trade, a series of artist workshops; B-Hip, Berkshire Hills Internship Program in Arts Management; and Downstreet Art.
MCLA Presents! featured, this year, a series new to this area, the MCLA Puppet Festival. Secor’s intention was to offer a variety of puppet theater to local audiences, to show how broadly puppetry can address our public and personal concerns. “The Chronicles of Rose,” by North Adams resident, David Lane (in collaboration with Toronto puppeteers), depicted in a series of peformances from October to April, the successful attempt to save French art from Nazi confiscation, during the Nazi occupation of Paris in WWII. “Dorme,” by Laura Bartolomei was performed in December. It deals with sleep, following the dreams and nightmares of a little girl. “Who’s Hungry”, by Dan Froot, Dan Hurlin, and Amy Denio, performed at the end of March, put on a theatrical spectacle of puppetry, dancing and music as the story follows the lives of five hungry, homeless residents of Santa Monica, CA. “The Pigeoning,” by Robin Frohardt, concluded the series with a mid-April performance. It is about, according to the program, “obsessive compulsive pigeons and the end of the world,” and includes battery-powered flying bees.
Downstreet Art, Secor points out, has been successful, now in its seventh year, in bringing foot traffic to downtown North Adams, which is a different audience than those people attending MASS MoCA exhibits. This program is a public art project designed to revitalize downtown North Adams by bundling existing art organizations and events and transforming vacant and open spaces into art venues. Downstreet Art is promoted as defining North Adams “as a cultural haven.” It has opened “pop-up”, temporary galleries in available spaces in the downtown, inviting artists from all over the world to participate.
One of the most spectacular features of Downstreet Art is its public art and mural project, spread around the streets and buildings of downtown North Adams. These include images of child mill workers painted by North Adams school children; several abstract paintings including one of the geological makeup of Main Street; a permanent installation called “Bus Stop”; “Paint It Big! Paint It Public!”, created by teens at The Clark in which students did a mural based on Dürer’s 16th century woodcut The Rhinoceros. There are also a window installation, a mural at the back of the Mohawk Theater, a Berkshire landscape scene, and a series of architectural cartoons, where, as described in the brochure, “buildings not only have a consciousness but also the desire and ability to perpetuate.”
Secor strongly believes that these new developments in arts and culture are the major energy sources in reviving North Adams, both economically and culturally. There is a new sense of vibrancy. But progress is slow, given the rough times North Adams has gone through. There is still a high rate of joblessness that won’t be diminished directly by a blossoming arts world. But the two major institutions supporting North Adams culture, MASS MoCA and MCLA, are making important changes. MASS MoCA, which formerly seemed to be self-isolating, has recently been investing more in the local community, including remodeling Heritage Park, and partnering with other arts institutions. MCLA has transformed itself in its relatively successful efforts to diversify its student body and enrich its Fine and Performing Arts major. Its internships and apprenticeships include placement in world class venues such as MASS MoCA, Barrington Stage, Berkshire Theatre Group, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood.
In 2002, Secor began taking courses at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, which his father, an Episcopalian priest and political activist, had also attended. Secor explained (interview, Berkshires Month, 2.13.2002) how his enrolling in the Seminary connected to his profession as an arts facilitator: “There’s something about the community in the arts which is similar to the community of the church. That’s the main reason–to create a stronger foundation no matter what I do with the rest of my life. And to me, that’s definitely rooted in a Christian theology, and rooted in a strong feeling of right and wrong and the necessity for social equality.”