John Davis ’84
There's no easy job title for John Davis: "director" is too broad, and "visionary" has been tried. "Intellectual entrepeneur" comes close, but he's also a "social entrepreneur." "Artist" simply honors his MCAD origins—but in terms of his twenty-plus-year career, maybe "impresario of ideas" works best.
As the creator of the first Great American Think-Off (1993) and then the Kids Philosophy Slam (200), two well-known national contests, Davis brings ordinary people into the big tent of thinking. These events were originally an offshoot of his earlier inspiration, which was to create cultural centers in small Minnesota towns. First in New York Mills, then in Lanesboro, Davis has matched small-town pride to economic optimism and innate human curiosity to demonstrate that "small-town" doesn't mean "small minded."
Davis moved to New York Mills soon after graduating MCAD, and while painting houses and barns for income realized that his clients were eager to discuss more than the weather. He also realized that pictures and poetry and dance fed economic health—that towns gained distinction, and then an actual income-generating future, in setting up cultural centers.
So he's as much a marketer as a curator. Davis learned that by promoting creativity, a town could demonstrate that "problem-solving is a creative process," as he told a 2011 interviewer. "It occurred to me that philosophy was something oriented to the academic world and I thought, 'Why? Why should that be? Why not pose big questions to average people?' My own personal philosophy is about access, whether through art or intellectually, through philosophy."
"Access" means that Davis's projects bring buildings and economic health, as well as art and thought, to Main Street as well as big cities. Not far from the feed store, rural citizens can see exhibits of then-and-now local photography, or artwork made out of agricultural materials. And in front of a live Washington D.C. audience, final contestants in the slam demonstrate their own "access" to enduring questions like "Do the ends justify the means?" or "Does life have meaning?"