Where art and theology intersect

Jonathan Secor

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 11, 2003) – In 1998, Jonathan D. Secor took a leap of faith when he left a successful career as an arts producer in New York City to take a chance on a then-unknown, upstart arts organization in the small, New England mill town of North Adams.

At first, he was hired to play a key role in the design, construction, and outfitting of all the performing art spaces at Mass MoCA. Since MoCA opened its doors in 1999, as director of performing arts Secor has overseen the growth of the museum’s programming that now includes a year-round extravaganza of concerts, films, dance programs, experimental theater, performance art works, and even a summer institute of contemporary music.

Working with programming director Rachel Chanoff, Secor has helped MoCA establish a track record of success for presenting new works from a wide array of artists, from international artists like Robert Lepage, Philip Glass, and Patti Smith to New York’s up-and-coming musical group Gloria Deluxe and the acrobat/dance troupe LAVA. By presenting works that are both large-scale and experimental, MoCA has quickly gained a strong reputation as a premier presenter in the Berkshires alongside long-established institutions such as Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Tanglewood, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Yet in spite of MoCA’s success, for which Secor can undoubtedly claim some significant share of the credit, there is still a restlessness in his spirit, a void needing to be filled. Where others in his position and at his point in his career might settle back and build directly upon what has come before, Secor has recently embarked on another leap of faith – a more literal one.

Last September, Secor began commuting to New York City one day a week to attend the Union Theological Seminary in a master’s degree program in divinity. His studies in theology bring things full circle in some ways. For one, Secor grew up not far from the school in a West Harlem neighborhood, where his father, an alumnus of the seminary, was an Episcopal priest.

But even perhaps more significant, for Secor, asking the sorts of questions that get asked in divinity school goes to the heart of what the performing arts – all art, really – are ideally all about.

“It’s corny, but I definitely believe that art changes people’s lives,” said Secor in a recent interview. “Maybe even more effectively than religion. Certainly to a broader audience and in more exciting ways. It opens eyes, hearts, and souls.”

Secor had been thinking about attending seminary for a long time. And when he finally made the decision to enroll, it was not out of any impetus toward a mid-life career change – he is happy with his job and looks forward to continuing in his position at MoCA for many years to come.

He does hope, however, that his studies in theology will provide “a different foundation, a stronger foundation,” to the one he currently has.

“I spout a lot, but often without the background to do so,” said Secor, who may think he “spouts,” but who is typically a very gentle, calming presence amid the hectic, hustle and bustle that is de rigueur behind the scenes in the performing arts. “So I was looking for some backup for my talk. I was looking for a better built soapbox.”

“That’s the main reason -- to create a stronger foundation no matter what I do with the rest of my life,” said Secor. “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 -- which for me is also rooted in my view of Christianity.”

Secor was to the manner born. In the church in which he grew up, his father – who was on the front lines among those pushing for ordination for women and the acceptance of gay marriage in the Episcopal Church -- preached to a mixed congregation of blacks, Latinos and whites as an activist priest who saw the Church as a tool for social reform and justice.

“The church I was raised in was very different from the larger church as a whole in its activism and its mission, actively fighting for a better world,” he said.

For Secor, the church is also about community. Even though he now lives near the top of the mountain in Florida with his wife, Geekcorps director Ana Maria, and their two daughters, he still has ties to his old neighborhood in New York, where he still has an apartment and is a member of his home church.

And it is in that emphasis on community where Secor also finds common ground between the church and the arts.

“There’s something about the community in the arts which is similar to the community of the church,” said Secor, “although I’d have to be a much better theologian to figure out how disco parties tie back to helping create a better world.

“But a dance party does bring people together. Some of our greatest events are Latin dance parties, and they bring together such a widely diverse group of people, from kids to ninety-year-olds. They’re all there in community doing something together, at the same time listening to and learning about a culture they may not be familiar with.”

Secor is not necessarily interested in becoming a pulpit minister. “The reason I’m going to Union is to get a broader view and to be able to look at events in the world through a lens rooted in the history of the Church,” he said. “But at this point I am not on an ordination track. I’d have to do some serious adjusting as to whether I could fit into the church the way it exists today -- and whether I’d want to.”

Rather, the degree he will probably wind up with will be a master’s of divinity in the arts, which would be a combination of theological training as well as exploration of how one could use that in the art world.

In fact, Secor’s view of religion is informed as much by his view of the arts as the other way around. “Good religion, like good art, makes you ask questions,” he said. “A lot of people use religion as a security blanket -- the place where things aren’t questioned. I think that’s the opposite of what it should be. You should leave a service not only
questioning your relationship with G-d, but your relationship with the world as a servant of G-d.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 13, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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