LANESBORO — In the early 2000s, John Davis proposed a radical idea for this 750-population town as political leaders were considering building a new arts center.

Instead of putting the arts in one building — in a box, so to speak — Davis championed the idea of making all of a Lanesboro an arts campus. It was a new concept: using the arts and culture to solve community challenges, to spur economic development.

Lanesboro didn’t take to the idea right away, but in 2014, a decade after proposing it, the city proclaimed itself an arts campus.

“It was perhaps a little bit ahead of its time. It wasn’t universally embraced back in 2000,” Davis said. “It really took a good eight to 10 years for that idea to really resonate with community members.”

In short, Davis, 56, is an arts leader who speaks the language of economics.

In March, Davis was named a Bush Fellow for his out-of-the-box thinking. The award is both recognition of Davis’ accomplishments and an opportunity to expand the scope of his work. In addition to a $100,000 award, Davis will have a bigger platform on which to advocate for small-town America and the arts as a tool for economic development.

Through Davis’ nudging, Lanesboro has embraced its artistic soul. It is not only home to the St. Mane Theatre, Lanesboro Arts Center, Commonweal Theatre and an assortment of bed-and-breakfasts, but has a full-time arts teacher at its school, a Poetry Parking Lot, and a bar, High Court Pub, that celebrates its historic origins.

The city’s arts focus has enhanced Lanesboro’s profile regionally and nationally. In 2013, the city was named among the top small town arts places in America. In 2014, the arts center won the Bush Prize for Communnity Innovation, which came with a $123,000 grant.

Davis, who is executive director of Lanesboro Arts, said the goal hasn’t been about cultivating a different artistic sensibility as building upon what Lanesboro already is.

“Part of what we’re working for is to keep that same character — and not to change it,” Davis said. “When we had community workshops on what the community wanted to see for an arts campus, a lot of feedback we got from the community was retaining the authentic character of the community.”

Lanesboro Mayor Autumn Johnson said Davis hasn’t just been been an advocate for the arts in Lanesboro, but for Lanesboro in general. He helped lobby legislators for funding a city dam project and assisted in organizing city-wide cleanups and bench-painting projects.

“He’s elevated the city, not just the arts,” Johnson said. “He’s not one to boast about it. He’s truly a public servant.”

Davis said he intends use to the next 12 to 24 months to work with the Rural Policy Research Institute, which he said has “embraced arts and culture as a sustainability strategy for small communities.”

“I want to reshape narratives for rural in Minnesota,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of preconceived notions about rural in a box. No matter where they live, focusing on commonalties has the potential to lift people up. And the arts, creativity and culture can be this amazing way to bridge those worlds.”

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