L’Original is a unique art gallery in its genre. Situated on Saint Paul Street in Old Montréal, this non-profit organization is run by a young native of France, just 22, who arrived in Québec only four years ago. His goal? To promote socially committed urban artists who use recycled materials.
Dorian Verdier is from a tiny village where art was rarely part of the scene. When he got to Montréal he was shocked and surprised to see to what point urban art had an important place in the society: “I was wonderstruck,” he recalls, “but also very curious. I wanted to know who the people were behind these works.”
He contacted them via social media to ask them directly. He realized that several murals were painted illegally: “Really, it’s honorable to give your art and your time to the community like that. I was very grateful,” the young man says.
His dream became to give back to the urban artists who had motivated Dorian to create l’Original. “Montréal has the greatest number of artists in Canada,” he says. “But contrary to British Columbia or the United States, there isn’t a big market of local buyers.” By establishing his gallery in Montréal, he said to himself that he could help these artists in their own city.
He quickly learned to his dismay that most works produced here were destined for export. “At the beginning, I was really outraged by this reality. But if there place is on the international market, I who come from another country can help them build bridges and sell their works all over the world.”
The Birth of a Project
It was during a finance course that Dorian got his idea for L’Original. One of his classmates suggested he use the works of artists who’d been dead for over 50 years, and therefore off copyright, to print and sell their art. Dorian saw the potential in that idea, but he had a better one. “Instead of creating new things with dead artists, we could do the same thing with living artists having trouble earning a living, by putting out recycled works,” he said.
The ecological aspect is fundamental for Dorian. According to a 2018 report by Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, the average Canadian generates 400 kg of waste per year. This type of statistic was particularly moving for the young Frenchman, who wanted to participate, in his own way, in reducing this number.
Dorian also loves old objects which, for him, are often of a better quality than things produced today. Destroying these items and paying to produce replacements of poorer quality, which are more polluting, seems wrong to him. “We can give these objects a new life through art, by hiring professional artists who, in general, aren’t very well paid.”
Dorian has begun creating events where he invites artists to paint used clothing: “I write to all those who use the hashtag #mtlart on Instagram. We find them in bars and in second-hand stores.”
But what to do with all those accumulated clothes? At first he tried to sell them through Instagram, without much success. He organized a pop-up boutique, and that worked out well; then, he rented a space with an artist’s co-op.
He quickly came to the conclusion that a non-profit organization was the best model for his project. That corresponded best with his values and with the mission he’d given himself, to recycle objects while helping artists.
At first the gallery was located on Mount Royal Avenue; an unfavourable site, Dorian says. It was in a part of town with very few art galleries. Customers weren’t going to make a beeline to his store. “We survived because we offered second hand clothing, but that nudged us away from our values,” he recounts. “We were recycling objects, but we weren’t living up to the other parts of our mission, helping out new artists, etc.”
L’Original moved to its present location and was set up more like a traditional art gallery, with lots of paintings for sale, but with a profit margin inferior to that of conventional galleries.
It helps that several volunteers help out at taking care of the gallery. Dorian spends a lot of time there. That doesn’t stop him from pursuing his studies at the famous business school, the HEC. “The (customer) traffic on Saint Paul is one of quality rather than quantity. I can do my homework while I’m in the gallery. That can be scary when you’re a student, but I think it’s the best time to start a new project,” he says, full of enthusiasm.
Carving Out its Place
Thanks to the quick support of established street artists like Philippe Mastrocola and Monk.E, l’Original was able to carve out its niche in the Montréal urban art scene. A good thing for Dorian, since it usually takes a while for a new gallery to be able to work with big names. “You have to make your reputation and show how much you’re able to help them before you can work with them. We try to keep a balance between socially committed artists who aren’t afraid to throw themselves into new projects, and established artists who give the whole situation a certain credibility.”
Moreover, this gallery operator doesn’t work with just anyone. He says that a lot of artists use the street art style without being part of that culture. “We try to be authentic by choosing street artists who practice their art on the streets and who have some sort of allegiance to that style,” Dorian says.
Dorian is proud of what he’s accomplished, and he has a lot of great ideas for the future. “We hope to one day open workshops and have a bigger impact on recycling furniture and in giving artistic value to clothing.” And he doesn’t want to remain running the gallery forever. “I see this organization lasting longer than me, and I’d like it to be more definitive than just me. I would love it that if I were to die one day, this gallery could live on.”