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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

Later, when New York Mills opened its sculpture park, a petite elderly woman who had lived in the community her whole life said to Davis, “I just want you to know what this change in this community means to me.” Then she said, “I bet you don’t remember who I am.” He replied, “Of course I do. I painted your garage 10 years ago.”

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In 2000, Davis showed up in Lanesboro.

Unlike New York Mills, Lanesboro had been using the “A” word quite liberally since the paved Root River State Bike Trail covered the old railroad grade in 1986. In fact, Lanesboro already had three arts organizations. Davis was hired to run one of them. Lanesboro also had a gallery and gift shop representing local and regional artists and a 120-seat theater. Much of the downtown was already on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lanesboro had its good looks, too. Naturally breathtakingly beautiful, it is tucked deep into that corner bit of southeastern Minnesota the glaciers let be. Just turn off Highway 52 and onto County Road 8 at the Fillmore County Historical Museum. (Check out the stuffed two-headed calf and the pickup truck that runs on wood.) Once in the valley and around the bend you’re plunged into the heart of what appears to be a turn-of-the-century pioneer town, charmingly well kept and minus the gunslinging and houses of ill repute. Instead, bicyclists and paddlers and river anglers and readers of Outside magazine—which, in 2004, named Lanesboro one of its best small towns in which to recreate—all clamor for access to the trails and river.

But the town itself wasn’t thriving. Davis proposed a plan that would fiscally and administratively merge two of the three independent arts organizations, improve city infrastructure, and make the entire town into “art.”

It was rejected. Unlike New York Mills, Lanesboro did see Davis as an agent for change. They just didn’t like what he proposed. So Davis quit.

He went looking for other projects. “I traveled a lot,” he says. He started the Kids Philosophy Slam and promoted it out of an Airstream trailer. This year, 17-year-old Christopher Mergen from Maryland was named the most philosophical kid in America for his response to “Which is more powerful, love or hate?” Mergen argued for love.

After four years, Lanesboro called Davis back. The town’s hardware store was gone; the grocery was about to go. Liz Bucheit, artist and co-owner of Crown Trout Jewelers, was chair of the arts board that hired Davis back. Partly it was because of his fiscal responsibility. “We needed someone who could balance the checkbook. We needed that to be viable,” she says. But really it was the community’s change of heart about the plan Davis had. “His vision is golden.”

“I proposed it again in the worst economy since the Depression,” Davis says. But this time, he took his own advice and established goodwill with the existing arts organizations. He listened the way he had listened in New York Mills. He let go of timelines. Eventually, two arts organizations combined into one. Davis became executive director of the new Lanesboro Arts Center. With the force of this newly coalesced community, employees and volunteers raised $100,000 to restore a historic walking bridge connecting a parking lot so no one who parks there has to walk across the highway to reach businesses. When that wasn’t enough money, Davis strategized efforts to lobby the city to put forth a bond referendum for the rest. It passed.

Is this in the scope of duties for a rural community’s arts center director? Such lines don’t matter to Davis, or to Lanesboro. And anyway, he was president of the Chamber of Commerce (which he also founded).

None of this was about the money either. And that’s when the big money started coming in.

0813_theaword_p04.jpgGordy Tindal and his wife, Val, are in the second year of their Lanesboro diner dream. Spud Boy Diner sits on a plot of land that used to be an open-air latrine for patrons of the downtown bars.

Show up for dinner early at Pedal Pushers Cafe on a Friday night in Lanesboro and you’re going to wait for a table. You may even have to contend with a television news team down from “the Cities” filming a segment on the town’s tourism. But it will all be worth it because of the homebrewed root beer, which the owner made himself in the basement.

Show up on time to a live taping of Over the Back Fence, Lanesboro’s community radio show at the St. Mane Theater (kitty-corner from Pedal Pushers), and you’re too late. All 120 seats are taken, and you’ll have to stand. But that will be worth it, too. Though it’s made with volunteers, Damon Prestemon has been emceeing the show for 19 years and is clearly a pro. On this particular Friday, he’s at the piano in a nun’s habit with a very un-nun-like hem, because the theme is “gospel.”

“I didn’t wear a slip. Can you guys see through this?” he asks the audience. Gratefully, we cannot. A choir in full robes sings “This Little Light of Mine.” The Pine Box Duo—“Our first gig was a funeral,” the guitar player says—is so good someone in the audience of primarily descendants of German and Norwegian farmers actually exclaims “wow!” A guy identified only as Jerry reads a joke with the punch line “and if Jesus sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter.” No agrarian stoicism here—the crowd roars with laughter.

Near the show’s end, the chairman of the board of Lanesboro’s Arts Center, Dick Haight, the retired pharmacist who is one of John Davis’s bosses, sings a hymn with two friends. The hymn is “You Can’t Stand Up Alone.”

The next morning at Dick and Diane Haight’s four-bedroom log home just outside of Lanesboro, 16 people make 202 pies for Art in the Park. It is the arts center’s largest community-produced event, and it comes just two weeks off of the 24 pies Diane made herself for Rhubarb Festival (which earned a visit from two National Geographic photographers this June and from Garrison Keillor in 2007). There isn’t a lick of rhubarb left within a three-mile radius. Of these 16 pie assemblers, most are transplants from the Twin Cities. Only three were raised in Lanesboro, and two of them are sisters. “When we left Lanesboro in 1974, it was a ghost town,” says Heidi Dybing. She and her husband recently retired from their organic farm nearby.

“If we had been rich in high school, we could have bought the whole downtown for $50,000.”

Today, the median home value in Lanesboro is about $114,000, a 30 percent increase over what it was in 2000. And at Art in the Park, they’ll get more than 2,000 visitors. They’ll move all of the pies. They’ll move thousands of dollars’ worth of homegrown goods at the new food co-op. And the arts center staff will move hundreds of works of art because, believe it or not, outside of the current capital campaign, support from the government and foundations is not the Lanesboro Arts Center’s largest source of revenue. The sale of art is.

And somewhere in there, Walt Bradley, a Thrivent insurance agent and sometimes musician in the Over the Back Fence radio show, will approach John Davis eating breakfast at the Chat-N-Chew. Bradley will have just seen a painting of himself done by visiting artist Matt Duckett in an exhibition called Rural Americans. Bradley will say, “He got me right! Right down to the buttons on my overalls!” and then he will tell Davis he plans to buy that painting and also to personally donate funds to the arts center capital campaign, which Thrivent will match.

And when Bradley walks away, Davis will lean back, smile with satisfaction, and whisper, “I’ve been asking him for months.”

This is why Davis is so sure Lanesboro will meet its goals. He knows the power of sitting back and letting the art do the work. He knows there would be no money without the art, without a community coming together to share its stories.

Speaking of which, Davis has another favorite story about another grain elevator art show, this one in Lanesboro. During the opening, an old farmer walked in and stood alone before the exhibition. “He was clutching something,” Davis says. “It was a photo of the grain elevator his grandfather had built by hand.”

You can’t buy that kind of connection; you build it from the ground up.

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