"I like seeing ideas made real," John Davis says. And for nearly two decades, in a series of cultural coups modest and otherwise, that has been his thing. His social entrepreneurship began in 1990 with the transformation of a dilapidated building in the Minnesota farming village of New York Mills into an arts retreat. From there, Davis's ambitions grew less conventional. "There's nothing greater," he says, "than providing opportunities to people to do something great." A portfolio (drawn from his own set of business trading cards):
After finishing art school, Davis bought an abandoned farmhouse and turned it into a retreat for urban artists, taking out three mortgages and painting houses to cover costs. His goal: to win interest from people who ordinarily wouldn't look at art. "Art, at its best, is about creating access to ideas and thinking."
In 1991, Davis persuaded New York Mills to kick in $35,000 for a cultural center. Locals disapproved of the lavish investment—but the economy thrived as a result. More than a dozen businesses opened, and jobs grew by 40%. Says Coral Lambert, a British sculptor who lived briefly in the city: "That was John's success. High art was brought to everyone."
Davis organized a local debate in 1993 on the nature of mankind. That expanded into the national Great American Think-Off. Topics have included, "Should same-sex marriages be prohibited?" (no, the winner argued) and "Does life having meaning?" (close, but yes). Four finalists debate in front of a live audience, which selects the winner. "Philosophy had become removed from everyday people," Davis says. "I wanted to expose people to new thinking."
The Think-Off begat the Kids Philosophy Slam, an attempt to engage youth in philosophy. Children submit essays, poems, music, or artwork on a philosophical question, with four finalists vying in Washington for the title "most philosophical student in America." Ryan Adams, 17, of Bethpage, New York, was among the 2006 finalists. "To get the youth of America thinking," he says, "is probably the greatest gift [Davis] could give society."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.