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1356 Dundas St W,

Toronto, ON, M6J 1Y2

Monday to Friday

9AM - 5PM


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

Assembly co-founders Ashlyn Davis Burns and Shane Lavalette

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.

Assembly artists roster

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.

Fragmented Cities, Apodaca #2, 2005-2010, by Alejandro Cartagena Fragmented Cities, Apodaca #2, 2005-2010, by Alejandro Cartagena

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.

Untitled, 2011, by Poulomi Basu Untitled, 2011, by Poulomi Basu

CD: What services will Assembly provide?

SL: As a gallery, agency, and creative studio, we see Assembly as a connecting point between artists and exciting opportunities in both the fine art and commercial world. This “connecting of the dots” as you might call it is something that is part of my own DNA—I love bringing people together to make things happen, whether that results in exhibitions, publications, commissions, or creative programs. We’re interested in supporting artists and their practice holistically and being responsive to each artist’s needs, goals, and ideas. Many artists maintain a commercial practice, so we see it helpful to work with magazines, brands, and companies to support creative commissions for artists. Additionally, we want to work collaboratively with both institutions and individual collectors to help them grow their art collections in thoughtful ways—whether that’s based around particular parameters, blind spots, or interests. 

ADB: Shane and I really built Assembly to be a bridge between the artist and the many-faceted components of their practice that not only sustain them as individuals but also that create meaningful opportunities for the broader public to encounter and engage with their work. The gallery component exists almost as a foundation for what we do - placing art with institutions and individual collections that allows the work to be seen and appreciated. In terms of the agency side of things, we’re really focusing on creative storytelling projects and opportunities to expand on each artist’s practice in a broader way, whether that’s through an editorial piece that sheds light on a timely issue or through a more expansive collaboration between a brand and an artist’s unique vision. Finally, as a creative studio, we’re really excited to work with publishers on unique photobooks, non-profit institutions and museums on exhibitions and public programs, and even public art projects with our artists. In some ways, the ways in which our work can be manifested is endless and part of that comes from our non-profit backgrounds where we got to wear many hats and take on many roles all with the end-goal of supporting our community.

The Evening Before, Janakpur, Nepal, 2016, by Vasantha Yogananthan The Evening Before, Janakpur, Nepal, 2016, by Vasantha Yogananthan

CD: What kinds of collectors do you aim to engage with through Assembly?

ADB: All of the artists that we’re working with are at the stage in their careers where their work is deserving of more international attention from museums and institutions, so we are eager to support those connections to facilitate exhibitions at the scale that is necessary for many of the artists’ projects. We’ve already received a wonderful response from curators and museum directors who are excited about the artists we are working with, and find many of them to be ideal acquisitions for their collections. 

SL: In terms of individual collectors, we imagine that the collectors who will be interested in Assembly are not only interested in buying work that will grow in value over time, but who also take a deep interest in the ideas and motivations of the artists, who all maintain thoughtful artistic practices. Our global roster represents a broad cross-section of perspectives and approaches to the medium, so we imagine that collector-base will be equally varied. We’re excited to engage in conversations about the work, as we believe these artists are making some of the most important work today.

The Road to Tepeyac #1, 2010, by Alinka Echeverria The Road to Tepeyac #1, 2010, by Alinka Echeverria

CD: How important is it for Assembly to cultivate a flexible, collaborative approach with your peers?

SL: We intentionally developed the concept of Assembly to allow for many kinds of partnerships and collaborations along the way. This allows us to dream up ideas and take it to others to see where there is synergy, or get pitched possible projects as well—from curatorial projects, to publications, creative direction, photoshoot production, art advising, or anything in between and beyond. We’re happy to be working with FFOTO now, as we see potential for more engaging places to discover, enjoy, collect, and learn about photographic work online. 

ADB: Collaboration and flexibility is at the core of our model - from how we work with each artist to how we approach each new project or partnership. It’s all tailored to the unique needs of each situation. We are really excited about some of the projects that are already in the works and eager to continue making connections!

 Espanto, 2017-2018, by Cristina Velásquez Espanto, 2017-2018, by Cristina Velásquez

CD: What projects can we expect to see from Assembly in 2021?

ADB & SL: Many ideas are swirling and we’re filling out the calendar with projects already, but one that we can mention now is the publication Index of Fillers, a limited-edition artist book by Fumi Ishino, an artist based between Los Angeles, CA and Tokyo, Japan. Index of Fillers is Ishino’s second monograph, following his acclaimed publication rowing a tetrapod (MACK, 2017) and is the first artist book published by Assembly, so we are excited to debut it along with our launch. Some exhibitions are also in the works, but for now, we’ll have to leave a bit of mystery! We hope that those who are eager to learn more will follow us on Instagram and sign up for our newsletter on our website.

Composed of found images of Japanese culture from the late 1980s and 1990s along with Ishino’s own photographs, Index of Fillers is a recreation of the artist’s elusive memory of growing up during this era in Japan. Referencing the traditional format of Japanese comic strips, each image panel contains its own nostalgic narrative—from a cartoon Clearasil commercial to a video game rendering of a neighborhood to the interior of a love hotel. With a machine-embroidered felt cover housed inside a woven pencil case, each handmade book is unique and also includes a CD with a video piece made in Ishino’s childhood room.

Index of Fillers, 2021, by Fumi Ishino Index of Fillers, 2021, by Fumi Ishino
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