Specials is a virtual space dedicated to writing on photography, showcasing unique content, projects and announcements.

Der Greif / Assembly Interview

Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourselves and what led you to launch Assembly?
Ashlyn Davis Burns: Prior to Shane and I founding Assembly, I was the Executive Director & Curator of Houston Center for Photography, a 40-year-old nonprofit dedicated to supporting photographers through a variety of programs. Shane and I have known each other for many years through our non-profit network and would often cross paths at related events. Assembly was born out of many years of discussion about the shifting state of the field, which we were both navigating as directors of non-profit institutions. Ultimately, our current business model solidified as a response to both the pandemic and our desire to see more robust support systems for artists. By launching as a virtual platform, we knew we would be able to work to support our roster of artists through longer-term initiatives that could be developed in lockdown, then debut in person once the world opened back up.

Alanna Fields, Come to My Garden (2021)
Alanna Fields, Fire Flies We Make, Bright As Stars (2012)

Shane Lavalette: Ashlyn and I have both been driven to support emerging and underrepresented artists throughout our careers, whether that’s through exhibitions, publications, residencies, or other projects. I’m a practicing artist myself, and so I also understand many of the challenges of navigating the art world and the value of having some kind of support system in place. Assembly is a platform that brings together elements of a gallery, agency, and creative studio in order to holistically support artists and their practice. At the outset, we wanted to make Assembly an inclusive, ethical, forward-thinking, and truly artist-centric space and this is something we take a lot of pride in. We’re still in challenging times, but also find this to be an exciting moment for reimagining what a platform for artists can be.

Alejandro Cartagena, Car Poolers #10 (2011-2012)
Alejandro Cartagena, Urban Transport #1 (2011-2012)
Alejandro Cartagena, Deutsche Börse, Photography Foundation Prize (2021)

What is Assembly and what ultimately sets it apart from traditional artist representation, such as a gallery or agency?
ADB / SL: From the beginning, we both felt a strong impulse to think expansively about support models for artists. Coming from the nonprofit world, this has always been our goal, but we both also intimately know the limitations of the non-profit structure as well, which is often only set up to provide short-term or project-based support. At the end of the day, we know there are no projects without the people behind them, so shifting the focus from the work products of the artists to the artists themselves is central to our philosophy. The next question, then, was how does one sustain a life as an artist, and typically there is no single answer. There is a web of support that comes from sales of artwork, commissioned work for brands and publications, teaching, grants and sponsorships, and book publishing, to name a few. By bringing this web of support together under Assembly, our goal is to simplify that process for artists and to act as a connecting point between their practice, their work, and these various constituencies that support it.

Alinka Echeverria, The Road to Tepeyac #38 (2010)
Alinka Echeverría, The Road to Tepeyac #37 (2010)

A traditional gallery works primarily to sell artwork; Assembly works to bolster the artist’s entire career, ensuring funding or opportunities are in place through various overlapping channels to support the development of new work and ideas. In this way, we hope to create more space in the lives of the artists we work with to do what we value so much from them—engage with their subject matter, creatively interpret the world, and make work that will have a lasting impact on the way we interact with each other as humans. More than just placing work in collections, Assembly strives to create more space for artists to be creators.

Cristina Velasquez, Espanto (2017-2018)
Cristina Velásquez, Two bands different frequencies (2018-2019)

What do you think is most valuable about this new model?
ADB / SL: We recognize that an artist’s practice is in and of itself multifaceted, so by creating a platform that can support a variety of projects, efforts, ideas, and opportunities, we believe we’re positioned to be the strongest support network for artists that we can be. Just as in developing a healthy business model, we are diversifying revenue streams in order to create a healthy, sustainable living for our artists. Assembly’s greatest asset is in being a connector for our artists not only to collectors and institutions but also to publishers, brands, editorial outlets, and virtual marketplaces which all feed into their livelihood and thus their creative practice.

David Alekhuogie, Funeral (2012)
David Alekhuogie, Slauson swap meet (2018)

What would you say has been the most fulfilling about operating virtually? What have been the challenges you’ve faced thus far?
ADB / SL: Without the physical and financial demands of a brick and mortar space, we have been able to function in a very nimble way, focusing our efforts on projects and relationships that will directly impact the artist, whether it’s thoughtfully positioning them for a commercial commission or sharing their new projects with institutions for exhibition opportunities or helping them construct a grant that could fund a new project. These are some of the important missing pieces that we hope to fulfill through Assembly. Of course, all work demands to be seen in person and navigating the challenges of representing work—especially new work from an artist—without a physical space in which to engage with it in person has been an obvious challenge of our current model. However, with the world in lockdown when we initially launched and now with new challenges posed by the Delta variant, it has still made sense to operate virtually and we have seen great success thus far in this approach. Looking ahead, there will be a physical expansion of Assembly in the future, but our goal is to strategically build out these other components that support our artists in the meantime in order to more effectively scale once the timing is right.

Fumi Ishino, Untitled (2021)
Fumi Ishino, Untitled (2021)
Pacifico Silano, There at the Seaside (2021)

All of your artists have distinct creative visions and yet there is a certain cohesion about your roster. How did you go about selecting the artists to work with, and how does their work shape the work you do as a gallery, agency, and creative studio?
ADB / SL: Selecting just ten artists for Assembly’s inaugural roster was no easy task—there are just so many artists that deserve more attention on their work. We began that process by simply making a list of artists that we had each worked with in some capacity, who we felt were making important and resonant work today. From there, we looked at where there was overlap and narrowed our selection.

Poulomi Basu, Untitled (2010-2021)
Poulomi Basu, Deutsche Börse, Photography Foundation Prize (2021)

The ambitions of Assembly are global, so we knew that we wanted our roster of artists to reflect that—along with being based in locations around the world, we wanted to represent varied approaches to the medium and language of photography. Many of the artists maintain a thoughtful research-based practice that informs their work, so that’s one thread that connects many of them, yet the ideas, subjects, and styles of their work are multi-faceted and distinct. They all maintain “lens-based” practices to some degree, though many have extended their photographic work into mixed-media, collage, painting, archival images, video, sound, and VR, among other mediums. They are truly interdisciplinary thinkers, which we love.

Rodrigo Valenzuela, American Type #10 (2018)
Rodrigo Valenzuela, Stature #15 (2019)

In what ways do you see the traditional gallery model changing over the next few years? Do you think this will be specific to photography and lens-based media?
ADB / SL: Photography is itself a hybrid medium and is operating in nearly every aspect of our lives. It’s hard to talk about one aspect of the field and leave out the other. After so many years of striving to be accepted as an art form, the medium has really come into its own and is embracing all its multiplicitous identities and capacities, which will likely continue to shift and evolve with time. This mutability of the medium coupled with the strong efforts towards diversity, equity, and inclusion across the arts sector demands new approaches. To put it simply, we don’t believe the same models that brought us to this point will carry us through, especially when it comes to truly opening up the field and making room for a broader array of voices and practices—in our current moment as well as historically. Now, in the midst of the second year of a global pandemic that has shaken the core of how we all function in the world, galleries must adapt. Virtual interactions are not going to go away if / when covid goes away. As the field expands so too does the need to support artists in a more sustainable way, and we know that exhibitions alone do not sustain an artist’s life. We think this hybrid approach will continue to be adapted by many galleries across their artists’ multidisciplinary practices, and while it easily translates for lens-based artists, we feel there is great potential across all genres of art-making.

Sarker Protick, Untitled, from the series: Lumiere (2015)
Sarker Protick, Untitled I, Elegy (2016)

What projects can we expect to see next?
ADB / SL: There is a lot we can’t quite talk about yet, but plans are in the works for various exhibitions, programs, and projects. We’re excited to soon be sharing details on a beautiful special collector’s edition box set publication of Vasantha Yogananthan’s A Myth of Two Souls, which will include seven books (many of which are now sold out) and seven beautiful prints. This will be published by Chose Commune and available to purchase via Assembly.

Vasantha Yogananthan, India Miro (2020)
Vasantha Yogananthan, Ravana Fighting Jatayu (2018)

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Ashlyn Davis Burns, Assembly, Courtesy of Jan Rattia
Shane Lavalette, Assembly, Courtesy of Assembly