The Business of Passion

By Jean-François Bouchard, Sid Lee Chairman & Co-Founder / Founder of C2 Montréal


I was 17. My mother gave me a Henri Cartier-Bresson book after she witnessed me tirelessly tinkering with my father’s rugged Nikon FE camera. I didn’t know how much power a book could have on a person, but this single book would go on to change the course of my life almost instantaneously.


My daydreams changed, my fantasies changed. I vividly remember staring down into the black-and-white photographs, imagining it was me travelling to these faraway lands, sporting a beret, puffing on a Gitane and conquering the world with my Leica. This was going to be my life – capturing magical human moments just like Cartier-Bresson.


So I joined the student newspaper, only to find myself covering more mundane news topics: cafeteria brown-food controversies and the never-ending stream of student strikes we would stage in order to feel worthy of our Che Guevara t-shirts (while remaining pampered upper-middle class kids, of course).


Not before long however, my photographic aspirations were to be abruptly derailed by my father. Upon learning that I was planning to study photography, he thundered, “My son, you shall study law or business. But of course, you can also decide to study business or law.” I chose law.


A photographer-turned-lawyer-turned-designer-turned-writer
To be fair, this was his one and only serious mishap in fatherly guidance, and I had mentioned to him that I was somewhat tempted by law. What he did not know was that these temptations were largely driven by fear; I was scared shitless of failing, either as a photographer or simply in life. Looking back on my early work, I can’t believe nobody ever advised me to perhaps give pole-dancing a try, or scallop diving, or literally anything other than photography. Insomuch as my talent was concerned, my fears may have been justified, but I have since learned that fear and creativity go hand in hand. All creative endeavours will and must at some point take you well past your comfort zone and into the lonely depths of the dark unknown, where the occasional period of poor work inevitably dwells. I would later learn to ride this kraken of fear up to the surface with a wide smile on my face.


I started the habit of simultaneously pursuing a main activity – law at the time – and my passion projects: photography, design and writing. Sid Lee was born out of my moonlighting as a (terrible) freelance graphic designer. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I went from a so-green-we-could-putt-on-his-back newcomer to enjoying real success and growth. When I say “I,” I actually mean “we.” We succeeded because we operated as a collective, not as a company, and even less as a one-man show. We succeeded because our leadership team was close-knit, wildly creative, and passionate. We succeeded because we did not give a damn about the traditional silos petrifying the creative industries. We would stick our noses in every discipline of the commercial realm: design, advertising, technology, architecture, film, whatever. We were curious. We were passionate. We were Sid Lee.


The grotesque gallerist
Our passion for creative exploration across boundaries, led us to create the Sid Lee Collective. This long-running program encourages and supports staff members in the pursuit of their own creative projects and very often blurs the artificial boundary between art and business. The Sid Lee Collective ended up being the catalyst for a myriad of exciting projects: books, exhibits, events, music compilations, short films and other more experimental – some would say ridiculous – endeavours.


Speaking of ridiculous endeavours, one in particular topped them all.


To great international fanfare, we launched our Amsterdam office by building it around a large eclectic public gallery space. Two hundred years after Rembrandt, we would rock the Dutch art world! Move over Rijksmuseum, the crazy Canucks are coming!


The space was an instant success: show openings would attract hundreds of unruly look-alike hipsters who drunkenly overflowed into the streets and caused mayhem time and time again. We absolutely loved every minute of it.


But our excitement was short-lived.


The space was also an utter financial disaster: we did not sell a single piece of work in any of the shows. To my dismay, 20-something hipsters apparently spend more on mustache grooming and tuques than on art. But we did have undeniable success in antagonizing the whole neighbourhood and pissing off the not-so-nice Polizie department.


My greatest feat as a gallerist by a mile was presenting the first solo show by Jon Rafman. Yes, THAT Jon Rafman. Discovered by whom, you ask? Yours truly. Jon would go on to become the new emerging sensation of the contemporary art world after our show and probably forgot we even existed. Unbeknownst to us at the time, our cleaning staff would go on to dispose of the 20 photographs from his famous 9 Eyes series – a very tidy $250,000 clean-up. Thank you very much, ladies!


Thus ended my glorious journey as a gallerist to a standing ovation by my relieved business partners.


But I was perfectly fine with this disastrous turn of events because my whole commercial creative career had become about refusing boundaries. Refusing to be boxed in. Refusing the paths others tried to impose on me as my father did. If convention would suggest I turn right, I violently swerved left (often crashing into a wall of reason but never regretting a second of it, and always surviving to tell the tale). My colleagues seemed to share the view that this was business strategy at its finest.


A tale of many passions
It is fair to say that Sid Lee has been largely built on this rejection of boundaries between creative silos and absolute curiosity for all disciplines. We also believe that creative growth is often fueled by the pursuit of personal passion projects. Managed well, these endeavours do not disrupt day-to-day activities; they nourish them. A good example of such creative sidelines is C2 Montréal. The event was imagined by Sid Lee in 2012 as a tool to explore the fruitful intersection between commerce and creativity. It rapidly took on a life of its own and now attracts 7,000 people from 60 countries each year!


As Sid Lee grew from 2 people to 700, I was encouraged by my partners to embrace my artistic interests. I presented a photography exhibit every couple of years in Montreal, Toronto, Miami and Paris. It required a special state of mind, very patient colleagues and a lot of work to be able to follow my passions and transform them into actual projects while managing a rapidly-growing international creative company.


I have been documenting subcultures for more than 15 years now and my upcoming exhibit explores the very extreme fringe of gun culture in the U.S.A. It will be presented in New York in April at Arsenal Contemporary (opening April 30, 6 P.M.) and the Magenta Foundation is publishing a book on the work that will be distributed internationally by Thames and Hudson. WIRED magazine just published a feature on the project.


This is my most ambitious effort yet to bring my passion for art to the next level, and my partners suggested that it was time for me to share my thinking and methods to help others embrace their own creative personal pursuits. So here it is.


For more information, follow JF on Instagram: @jfbouchard1