This Startup Titan is Giving Back to the Community in a Monumental Way

“This used to be my office,” says Dax Dasilva with a laugh. The founder of Never Apart points to the enclosed glass room in front of us, decorated to look like an abandoned travel agency: unflattering dim light, gray carpet covered in airline logos, Hawaiian lei hanging off an open glass case like a guest that’s overstayed their welcome. There’s even a security gate on the door, making the room seem more like a dingy storefront than an installation in one of Montreal’s most revered venues. The installation, which comments on the nuances of cultural exchange and the commodification of cultural diaspora, is not meant to be pretty, but poignant. And while many of the other summer exhibits on display throughout the 12,000 square foot building represent physical beauty and badassery in many forms—like in the theatre below, displaying the photography of Sven Marquardt, the infamous bouncer of Berlin’s Berghain nightclub—it becomes increasingly clear that Dasilva’s goal for the space is not to simply bring in beautiful art, but art that aims to bring about social change and spiritual awareness. 

While this may seem like lofty goal at the best of times, Dasilva has found a formula that makes this idealistic modus operandi work. Never Apart is non-profit organization that narrows its focus to incorporate a strong LGBTQ component. Since its inception in 2015, they’ve introduced the Coloured by Icons series: an ever-expanding colouring book that aims to restore the importance of queer history and role models, and Wiggle: the wearable art and performance extravaganza, this year hosted by Candis Cayne. One of their summer exhibitions is called Femme Realness: A celebration of the effeminate gay male; another, the works of John Simone, the prolific 80s club photographer who shot the likes of Leigh Bowery and RuPaul. And while Never Apart is a place that undeniably attracts the chicest people that Montreal has to offer, Dasilva points out that the crowds are never overtly LGBTQ. “Everyone comes in with the understanding that it’s a safe space for everybody to be who they are. I see many people bringing their kids, it’s great.”

Dasilva, who is the founder and CEO of the incredibly successful Montreal-based tech firm Lightspeed POS, is a man who wears many hats. When Lightspeed outgrew the stylish Mile-Ex building, Dasilva decided to turn it into a community hub rather than selling it to a real estate investor who would have turned it into condos. “I’d had this idea with me even before Lightspeed existed,” he says, “I did computer science in University, but then I switched to religious studies and art history. I’ve always had a great love for culture, and there is a spiritual intention with this centre in that it tries to bring people together and uses the tool of culture to do so. That’s the intention, and I think it comes out in the kind of love that people feel when they’re here—which is not typically a goal for an art gallery, but that is, I think, the reason why artists are interested in the centre. The intention is something that is pure, and it doesn’t have the typical boundaries that you might find in a commercial gallery.”

Dasilva explains this while leaning back beside the glamorous saltwater pool, one of the many impressive elements that heighten Never Apart well beyond the realm of “community centre” into veritable “art gallery” territory. We invite in artists at different stages in their career – we’ve had everybody, from people doing their first big show, to legends from around the world – and everyone brings such quality. It’s always so special to see what comes of it.”

Unlike most other galleries around Montreal, Never Apart attracts a crowd that consists primarily of creatives: filmmakers, artists, and musicians in their own right. Many of Never Apart’s proposals come from the people who walk into the space without an idea, and leave with twenty. While Dasilva’s two organizations, Lightspeed and Never Apart, are dissimilar on a basic level, Dasilva views both as having the same, fundamental ideals: to create, share, and inspire. “I feel like I’m the father or the parent to 600 people around the world. But here [at Never Apart] I feel that the mission is a little bit…wider. At Lightspeed, we’re trying to help entrepreneurs in retail, and restaurant, and e-comm become the leaders in their communities in business. And here, we’re trying to help artists, spokespeople, and awareness-raisers in the community. We’re always working with people and trying to bring the best out of them by giving them the tools and platforms, whether it’s the Lightspeed platform, or it’s a Never Apart platform. Leadership is a key thing that both projects focus on. Great leaders create leaders. Investing in culture is something that enriches us all.”

Over the past decade or so, LGBTQ spaces have slowly but surely been disappearing. Dasilva and his team’s mission to promote LGBTQ awareness feels vital in a time mired by tumultuous politics where decades of progress are being threatened. “I have this conversation all the time about ‘villages’” says Dasilva, “[in Montreal] we have an eight block village that’s in a state of transformation, but many cities no longer even have a village—you can’t identify a village in New York City. It’s been priced out. It’s impossible. So those places are still important. When a young person comes out, they’re going to gravitate towards the village and be immersed in the culture, or certain elements of the culture. But, eventually they’re going to realize that LGBTQ people live everywhere in the city; they live in Mile-Ex, you know? A lot of creative people and work in the creative industry live in this neighbourhood and neighbourhoods like it. For us to have community outposts in different places is important.”

The greatest question that exists for Never Apart now, knowing that the formula works well, is how it will manifest in the future. “Will there be multiple centres in other art cities?,” Dax posits, “will we be exporting Montreal culture, or will be bringing more people in from other places to raise awareness here and conversely abroad? There will be many projects that come from the centre. I see it in Beta test right now. During the first couple of years of Lightspeed we didn’t sell to the public. I see the same thing with Never Apart in that we are perfection a formula: of a way to engage people, that maybe, at some point, we’ll be in multiple places.”

And what’s next for Dasilva? In terms of personal projects, he’s currently working on a book in his (limited) free time. “The format of the book is going to be something that’s not your standard hardcover. It’s going to be an art object. It’ll be a surprise.”


Text by COURTNEY BAIRD-LEW

Feature image of Dax Dasilva by Martin Flamand

This article is a part of Issue 1: Illumination