A Conversation with Community Advocate John Davis
Note: an abridged version of “Teaching Moments” from this interview, conducted by our former intern Lindsay Sheridan, was published in Arts Link, the quarterly membership publication of Americans for the Arts. John Davis is the Executive Director of Lanesboro Arts Center.
LINDSAY SHERIDAN: What is your personal arts history and educational background?
JOHN DAVIS: From a very early age, my mom was supportive of my interest in the arts. We lived in Minneapolis, and I grew up with her taking me to all the museums there. I went to college at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, so my background is in fine art and design. I studied graphic design and industrial design, but ended up taking classes in painting and sculpture. I pretty much love all aspects of the arts.
SHERIDAN: Is there an arts leader or community advocate who helped you hone your interests at a young age and develop your own career?
DAVIS: In college I took a class on creative problem solving, and my professor was a man named Jerry Allen. I began using the principles he taught us as an approach to community development and arts administration years later in my career. I think that class and that professor were really pivotal for me. He taught us that anything was possible, and that mindset, especially when working in a rural area, is extremely valuable. Professor Allen is definitely the first person that comes to mind when I think of people who have helped me develop a leadership philosophy.
SHERIDAN: What drove you to want to become community advocate?
DAVIS: Living in a small town, one tends to be more aware of the need for advocacy. After 25 years of living in rural communities, it’s not really a choice--one has to be an advocate. I think what that means is speaking out for others in the community and giving them a voice. It means advocating for accessibility, advocating for innovation, and advocating for the recognition that there’s value in your community, no matter what size it is. And I believe that really translates from rural small towns to metropolitan big cities.
SHERIDAN: What type of events and programs have there been in Lanesboro that have really engaged the community?
DAVIS: There are many that stem from the community theatre. There’s a program that’s been going on for 20 years called Over the Back Fence. It’s a monthly radio show that’s also on stage that involves local musicians and comedy skits that engage the whole community. There’s a core group of company members for the show, but the goal is to bring in regional talent. We’ll bring in someone from Decorah or Rochester, and they attract their audience base. Another community theater project that was hugely successful was a silent film in the park at night. Many segments of the community volunteered to be in the movie, from the agricultural community to the students. As a result, they had 200 people show up. It’s all about making it easy and accessible for people to participate.
SHERIDAN: Does the size or demographics of a community dictate how you conduct a new project or program?
DAVIS: I think that the size of the community doesn’t matter as much as what you need to do. With any project, do your homework. So many times people make assumptions, and as soon as you start doing that you run into problems. When I first moved to New York Mills, there wasn’t an art scene. The first two and a half years I lived there, I just painted houses and barns to make a living. People didn’t see me as someone who wanted to change the community, they just saw me as the guy that would climb up on a barn and paint. I would talk art and philosophy with farmers over dinner, and found out that there was a real yearning and need for the arts. That’s when the first program started, the New York Mills Arts Retreat, which brought artists into the community. The retreat became a cultural center that engaged the community, including local politicians and community leaders, and that’s when things really started to take off. “Community buy-in” might be an overused term, but it’s just so important. A shared vision in something’s success means all parties are working towards that same goal to make it succeed, and that was the case in New York Mills. It went from a small town of 1000 people and with no arts scene to one of the top 100 arts communities in the country.
SHERIDAN: Do you think it’s easier in some ways to engage with a smaller community?
DAVIS: I think there are challenges, no matter what size community you’re in. The same principles really apply. In some ways, the risks are far greater in a small town. When you’re in a town of a 1000 people and you make a mistake, everyone in that town knows you made a mistake. If you’re in New York City and something doesn’t work, it’s a pebble in a pond. In a small town, you’re under the microscope. You need to be extremely strategic, cautious, and straightforward when you’re doing projects.
SHERIDAN: What is one of your favorite stories from working in Lanesboro?
DAVIS: We did an opening with a local sales commission, which is basically a livestock auction. I wanted to do an art exhibit that would bridge both the art and local business worlds and help both sides understand more of what the other side did. We recruited five regional photographers to take pictures at the auction and document the work happening there. The Minnesota Beef Council and Filmore County Cattle Association were our partners, and they grilled steaks out in front of the gallery. We had 300 people attend--it was the most successful opening I’ve ever been associated with! The owner of the sales commission bought a photograph; it was the first piece of art he’d ever purchased. We were able to expose people to the arts, and did it in a way that was informative and engaging. It really created a sense of breaking down barriers and creating a win-win situation, which benefited the whole community.
Learn more about John's work at www.lanesboroarts.org.