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How Montreal’s Creative Scene Got A Lift From A Fast-Growing Canadian Startup

Never Apart, an alternative gallery of sorts, is blossoming in the old offices of Lightspeed POS.

In 2005, Dax Dasilva founded Lightspeed, a provider of point-of-sale software. Over the next six years, it became one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies. In 2011, Dasilva bought what he calls an “amazing warehouse space” in a hip part of Montreal called Mile-Ex. Previously owned and lived in by a film producer, the space had an outdoor pool theater and a “great vibe” overall. Soon, Lightspeed moved into the space.

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Dax Dasilva

As Lightspeed continued to grow, Dasilva kept converting more of the space into offices, at one point cramming in 90 employees. But soon, it became apparent that Lightspeed would outgrow even the Mile-Ex space. It was at that point that Dasilva began to think about how he might use the space once Lightspeed moved out.

It required Dasilva to think about what he wanted for Montreal, and for the world. The more he thought about it, he says, the more he felt that one pressing problem was a kind of separation: a separation of humans from nature. A separation of humans from each other. A separation even of certain types of creative people from other types of creative people. Dasilva thought it was silly, for instance, that visual artists in Montreal had their own set of parties, while music people had their own set of parties, but rarely did the two groups mix.

By fall 2014, Dasilva began to commit considerable time and his own funds into transforming the Mile-Ex space into a cultural nonprofit called Never Apart. He hired an executive director he knew from the art world named Michael Venus (known especially for what Dasilva calls a “larger-than-life drag personality”), and a musical director named Anthony Galati, who had headed a top techno label in Montreal.

Outdoor screening of Stagnant Pool by Kevin Calero

Dasilva and his colleagues have spent 2015 building Never Apart into Montreal’s new cultural It Space. “It’s been magnetic,” says Dasilva. “We’ve definitely got the wind at our back.” The biggest event thus far has attracted 600 people; screenings regularly attract 300. What was once a space housing coders and salespeople now plays host to five galleries, a music room lined with 10,000 records, spaces to hold guest speakers, and a “moon room” featuring a huge rotating sphere and bean bag chairs. This month, Never Apart launches an online magazine chronicling the goings-on at the space.

When he and his colleagues were planning the space, says Dasilva, they met with similar organizations in New York, like the Norwood Club in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, founded in 2007 as a novel, artsy riff on stuffier social clubs of yore. “We’re in the spirit of Norwood, in that people come to exchange ideas, but we’re less of a social club than Norwood,” says Dasilva. Ultimately, Never Apart shares more DNA with alternative art galleries and music production studios, he says.

Never Apart’s events and programs have already displayed a political bent. It recently produced a coloring book called Colour by Icons, which presented 25 LGBT “heroes from the past,” says Dasilva. (Dasilva came out at 14, despite being at an all-boys Catholic school, and found early support from a gay and lesbian center in Vancouver.) The book features people like Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing, and Keith Haring. “We need to connect young LGBT people with their ancestors, with all these people who did amazing things.” He admits that he didn’t know some of the people presented until embarking upon the project with his staff. “A whole generation died of AIDS, so there’s not a whole lot of transfer of knowledge.”

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Several programs at Never Apart have focused, and will focus, on the environment. There are plans to build a green space on the roof next year.

Though Dasilva has hopes that Never Apart will become economically self-sustaining, for now, he’s bankrolling it. “This project feels like a calling more than anything,” he says. “There’s nothing more valuable that I feel like I could put my resources behind. I want to guide Never Apart to be a place where artists can come together and as a collective make a difference.” He keeps coming back to the idea that separation, in the broadest sense, is what ails humanity. “We’re so separated from nature, and from other types of people. We’re never going to get there as a species if we maintain all these boundaries and separations.”

Never Apart and its programs, he says, can serve as a “rallying cry.” “What better way to start than with the creative class, with people already trying to voice some of these concerns?” he asks.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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