The 'A' Word with John Davis

Two tiny Minnesota towns buzz with culture, ideas, and (yes) art, thanks to this guy.

John Davis
Photos by Sara Rubinstein

Drive north on Highway 10 to New York Mills and you’ll be subjected to a litany of worst-named towns. Keep going past Pillager, Staples, and Motley, and just a hair beyond Oink Joint Road. Veer east and you’re in Nimrod. The Burlington-Santa Fe train barrels through New York Mills without braking—no reason to stop.

And yet, on an idyllic June evening, the rural town of 1,200—mostly descendants of Finnish and German farmers—is packed. Motorcyclists from the world’s largest Ronald McDonald House benefit ride roar in, and the Great American Think-Off is about to begin. It’s 166 miles from Minneapolis, but New York Mills buzzes with engines, people, and big ideas.

The Think-Off is an amateur philosophy competition held at the high school. Boy Scouts distribute programs. Organizers sell coffee mugs printed with the event’s logo: Rodin’s Thinker atop an open-cab tractor. Promptly at 7 pm, the audience sings “America the Beautiful” and then settles in to hear the competitors address this year’s question: Which is more ethical—compromise or sticking to one’s principles? A fiction writer, a professor, an IT consultant, and the CEO of a health management company each take their turn at podiums, invoking Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Jesus Christ, and weight loss along the way. The health CEO—arguing for compromise—wins by audience vote. Then everyone packs into the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center for dessert bars, wine, and the best meatballs you’ve ever eaten (these are Finns, after all). They check out a photography exhibit by Minneapolis-based John Noltner that’s showing here before it hits the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota. And they consider buying something made by one of the more than 70 local artists who sell work at the gift shop, be it a $100 sculpted wooden bowl or a $5 hand-knit “beard warmer” that hooks around your ears.

As everyone mingles, a Boy Scout drinking lemonade sums up what he learned: “I think you can listen to other people and share your ideas without giving up your beliefs,” he says. His fellow scouts nod in agreement.

The next morning at the Whistle Stop Bed and Breakfast, members of the town’s Regional Cultural Center board gather. They give handmade gifts to the amateur philosophers who made this year’s Think-Off another big success. And they chat about all of the other creative endeavors happening around their community.

A retired Park Nicollet pediatrician describes the labyrinth he built on his New York Mills property. He was inspired by another labyrinth in town, the one in the New York Mills Sculpture Park that’s right next to the world’s largest art tractor, a 17-foot-tall, 3,800-pound monster made of 1,154 scraps of welded iron.

0813_theaword_p01.jpgLanesboro, Minnesota, population 754, lost its grocery and hardware stores this past decade. But its arts economy is thriving.

Talk inevitably turns to the subject of how little New York Mills, once a nowhere of a place, became so interesting. The explanation is simple. It’s all because of one man. John Davis, they say. He started all this, and now he’s in Lanesboro.

It’s another bright night in June, this time south of the Twin Cities on Highway 52. The members of the Lanesboro Arts Center board are entertaining themselves with a capital campaign and board meeting. An architect, an attorney, a biofuel plant manager, a retired pharmacist, a retired financial adviser who also sits on the city council, and two innkeepers make up the board.

At the head of the table sits a man in an innocuously patterned button-down shirt and dark pants. John Davis, executive director of the Lanesboro Arts Center, is distinguishable in demeanor from these other middle-aged Midwesterners in just one aspect: He is slightly more understated.

After everyone takes a potshot at the attorney, including the attorney, they get into the financials. How are they? Pretty close to last year. How did the ArtLofts do? Pretty close to last year, despite the long winter. The line of credit that saw them through the winter? They’ll make it all back with the Art in the Park event. The $5,000 the city was to earmark to work on empty storefronts? That’s a done deal.

And how about the little issue of the $1.1 million capital campaign? “We are two-thirds of the way there already. If we even get through one-quarter of our ‘personal ask’ list, we’ll get there by December,” Davis says.

Then the fear creeps in: Are they thinking big enough? Is this going to bring in jobs? Is there enough capacity to implement the plan? Will they really be able to raise another $400,000?

Davis calmly folds his hands in front of him. “We’re doing something no other organization this size has ever tried,” he says. “And the answer to all of your questions is ‘yes.’ ”