In Conversation: Assembly co-founders Ashlyn Davis Burns and Shane Lavalette
Early in the new year, my colleague Shane Lavalette called to talk to me about Assembly, a new lens-centric venture that curator Ashlyn Davis Burns and he developed during the institutional lockdowns of 2020. Shane outlined a concept for a company that will holistically nurture artists and their practices - as an exhibition venue, agency, and creative studio - while identifying and cultivating opportunities for collaborations with a global network of creatives. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that Shane had my complete attention.
The natural affinity between Assembly and FFOTO fell into place as Shane walked me through his and Ashlyn’s plans. We talked about how our platforms could benefit each other by integrating FFOTO as a sales channel for Assembly, giving collectors access to a group of thrilling, credible, yet under-promoted artists, while leaving Assembly to pursue institutional and commercial projects centered around their roster. Assembly and FFOTO fit well together, and so here we are today.
I’m excited to help spread the word about Assembly’s ambitious intentions. I invited co-founders Ashlyn and Shane to tell FFOTO's friends and followers all about their venture; its genesis, and their expansive vision.
— Craig D’Arville, FFOTO Co-founder and COO
Craig D’Arville: Hi Shane and Ashlyn. Let’s jump right in - how did Assembly come about?
Shane Lavalette: It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment. Ashlyn and I have been colleagues and friends for about a decade and over the years I think we always admired and appreciated each other's work and ideas. Prior to Assembly, Ashlyn was working as the Executive Director and Curator at the Houston Center for Photography (2015-2020) and I was previously the Director of Light Work (2011-2021). At times, it felt uncanny to see how our wavelengths aligned in terms of our interest in particular artists, the programs we were working on at our respective institutions, and the developments in the field that we were paying close attention to. We would see each other for coffee or lunch in New York during AIPAD or in Paris during Paris Photo and find ourselves lost in conversation about ways in which the art world needs to evolve, discussing new models for artist support and new ways of thinking about creative collaboration, curatorial work, publishing, and beyond. In a way, Assembly was born out of these kinds of conversations.
Ashlyn Davis Burns: As Shane said, our conversations about the field and thinking about new models to support artists has been ongoing - and it will likely continue! Our ideas specifically around Assembly really began to crystalize in early 2020 after our institutions were forced to close our doors to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This new, virtual moment was certainly a challenge for all of us to navigate as non-profit spaces, but it also opened up new ways of thinking about what it really means to support the creative practice in this moment and how we might create a model that can be nimble and responsive to the world we live in. While Assembly is certainly a product of the virtual shift we all experienced in 2020, it also places a lot of value on fostering collaboration between artists and our larger community of creatives, and we are eager to create in-person opportunities in this spirit in the future.
CD: From your perspective, where are the gaps that need attention in the photography industry - and in the art market?
SL: The systemic issues of the art world are blinding. There is so much work this industry needs to do in terms of leveling the playing field for artists. The galleries and the decision makers are a big part of the problem. Change of this scale takes a collective effort and many difficult conversations, but change is long overdue. In many ways, Assembly was created in response to the need to more expansively support diverse voices in the field of photography and to spark necessary conversations about the field and equity for artists.
ADB: Broadly speaking, the field - across the art and commercial sectors - is undergoing a shift in priorities, when it comes to who tells our stories and what stories we value. Assembly hopes to work to ensure that this is not a passing trend, but an ongoing priority that gets reflected across the commercial sector as well as non-profit spaces and institutional collections. Artists of colour are still vastly underrepresented in major collections and that's critical not only to our understanding of the field today, but also to future generations' understanding of our history. We need more concrete support for diverse image-makers, and part of Assembly's goal is to make that happen while creating opportunities to share their stories with the world. Assembly is focused on sustaining the creative practice, meaning creating support mechanisms that allow an artist to be able to carve out the time and space to do what we value so much from them. For the artists in our roster, this means we're not just focused on their next show and selling their work as a sort of boutique experience. We're facilitating meaningful acquisitions, supporting their grant requests, facilitating marketing efforts, creating collaborative programming with other institutions, and connecting them with meaningful opportunities to bring their vision to fruition.
CD: How do you identify and select the artists that Assembly will work with?
ADB: Assembly's roster is intentionally global and diverse in approach. The artists we represent are actively experimenting with the medium, pushing the boundaries of what photography can be or how it can operate in order to bring out deeper truths about the culture we live in. All of the artists are deeply embedded in their subject matter, often spending many months if not years researching or exploring different ideas before making work about it. As someone with a more academic background, I love the rigor and interdisciplinarity of this approach to art-making and our roster really reflects that.
SL: Exactly. It starts with a deep belief in the artists as individuals. Perhaps this comes from our non-profit backgrounds and the “artist-centric” thinking that drives us, or in my case even my own experience as an artist working in photography. While we are of course interested in the artwork itself—the ideas, feelings, and power it transmits—I think we are motivated by this deeper belief in the artists behind the work. We believe that these individuals have a voice and something to say with it that is meaningful, resonant, even vital. We tend to be drawn to artists whose practice involves research and critical thinking that explores subjects of history, place, identity, and representation, responding in various ways to our life and times. The artists we want to work with seem to naturally reflect who they are in their work, even if it’s not directly about that. It’s something you feel. Our interests are very broad, both in terms of subject matter and approach to the medium of photography. I love finding artists that provide us with new visual languages, new ways of seeing.