Interview by Alexandre Orlowski
Ashlyn Davis Burns, former Executive Director & Curator of Houston Center for Photography and Shane Lavalette, artist and former Director of Light Work recently launched Assembly, a unique gallery, agency and creative studio supporting an innovative roster of visual artists who are engaging in some of the most important social and cultural issues of our time.
Ashlyn and Shane, what led you to start Assembly in the middle of a pandemic?
In the past, 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. Our ideas really began to crystalize in early 2020 after our institutions were forced to close our doors to the public due to the 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 is a new breed of agency blending artistic and commercial focus. What services do you provide?
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, we 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.
On the agency side, we’re 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. Many artists maintain a commercial practice, so we see it helpful to work with magazines, brands, and companies to support creative commissions for artists.
Whether it’s for editorial, fashion, advertising, or a site-specific installation, Assembly seeks to connect art directors and photo editors with artists that can bring their unique artistic vision to commissioned work.
Finally, as a creative studio, we’re really excited to work with publishers on unique photo books, non-profit institutions and museums on exhibitions and public programs, and even public art projects with our artists.
What qualities are you looking for in an artist and how do you curate your roster?
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.
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. While we are of course interested in the artwork itself—the ideas, feelings, and power it transmits, 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.
How do you address the recent changes happening in the the photography industry and in the art market?
Broadly speaking, the field - across the art and commercial sectors - is undergoing a systemic shift in priorities, when it comes to who tells our stories and what stories we value.
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.
What projects are in the works for Assembly in 2021?
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!
And in closing, how would you describe the Agent’s Club in three words?
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHER REPS NETWORK