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

John Davis moved to New York Mills from Minneapolis in 1987 because that’s where the $10,000 he had saved up would buy him acreage. Born in Manhattan and raised in Minneapolis by hippie intellectuals, he had just graduated from MCAD. He had done OK there. For a class called “Creative Problem-Solving,” he had so smartly redesigned bedside tables at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics that it resulted in a production order and an offer to help redesign a hospital wing. He was 19 years old. He received a C because he was two weeks late turning in the assignment.

The farm he bought in New York Mills included a house with no front door or working plumbing. “I went broke three times. The first two years I lived there, I made $4,500 a year if I was lucky,” Davis says. To stay fed, he painted farmers’ barns and often ended up coming into the house for coffee and pie. Though an introvert, Davis had once sold shoes and hence had learned how to talk to anyone with feet. But talking to farm families changed him.

0813_theaword_p02.jpg Damon Prestemon (right) gossips with Norwegian farmer “Lars” played by Robin Krom. Both perform in Lanesboro’s Over the Back Fence radio show to sold-out audiences.

“I had preconceived notions of what a farming community was about,” he says. When farmers learned he was an arts graduate from “the Cities,” they wanted to talk poetry, and opera, and works of art they admired, and art they themselves had made. “There was a yearning for the arts,” Davis says. “But there was no access.”

There was no Music Man–like fanfare for his leadership either. “People there didn’t see me as an agent for change. They saw me as a guy who worked really hard painting houses and barns.” And they liked him. And he liked them. And, well, he could see people wanted the arts, so he asked: “How can we weave the arts into this community so tightly that it’s hard to remove it?”

Within three years he had founded an artist residency in his home, established a nonprofit in an abandoned building downtown, started the Great American Think-Off, and the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center received $35,000 from the New York Mills city council. It was the equivalent, he claims, of asking a city the size of Minneapolis to donate $13.7 million. Another $50,000 followed from the McKnight Foundation in 1991, but such city-based arts funders were a hard sell at the time. Back then, funding rural arts activities was considered a universally bad idea because there was no perceived value, Davis says. He kept hearing, “Why would you waste your time up there when people could just come to the Twin Cities?”

“I was so frustrated, I wanted to body slam people,” he says.

From 1992 to 1998, 17 new businesses opened in New York Mills. The Today Show, The New York Times, USA Today, and National Public Radio all called. Bucking a national trend for rural areas, New York Mills did not lose population but actually grew slightly from 2000 to 2010.

It was never about the money, Davis is quick to point out. You don’t create economic sustainability by finding grantors or asking your neighbors for donations. And you don’t build an arts economy by talking conceptually about “the arts.”

“You don’t start by looking for money. And you don’t use the ‘A’ word,” Davis says. “You start by sitting down and having coffee with people and making a collective vision.” You start, he says, by understanding what your community has to share and then looking for interesting ways to tell its story.

For example, one of the first visiting artists Davis brought up to New York Mills, Linda Koutsky, was fascinated by local grain elevators and did an entire art exhibition on them, some rendered in seed art. Her work so captivated people’s hearts that grain elevator management stepped up to host a joint exhibition with the cultural center.