Assembly is a Houston-based art gallery and agency whose web3 platform, Assembly Curated, was among the first to focus on fine art photography NFTs. I recently had the opportunity to ask one of the founders, Shane Lavalette, why it exists and where it’s headed.
Jeff Hamada: What brought you and Ashlyn Davis Burns together to create Assembly? And what was the initial vision?
Shane Lavalette: We conceptualized Assembly amidst the pandemic and when we launched in early 2021 our vision was to rethink what “representation” means, by establishing a hybrid gallery and agency that holistically nurtured artists and the multifaceted opportunities to support their practice. In other words, we wanted to assist with many of the things traditional art galleries do, including placing works with collectors and museums/institutions, as well as guiding artists through editorial or commercial projects and working with magazines and brands to develop meaningful storytelling. We have helped artists write grant applications to support their work, conceptualize book projects, supported some of the first fine art photographers in the NFT space, and more. The openness to which we can work is very exciting and always new—and we feel it mirrors what it’s actually like to be an artist, wherein you wear many hats. Having representation that can see the big picture and explore new avenues and ideas is essential, so I think we’ve thoughtfully positioned ourselves to be that.
JH: Would you say your tastes are more similar or more different?
SL: Ashlyn was the former executive director and curator at Houston Center for Photography, while I was the director for a number of years at Light Work. I know we worked with many of the same artists in different capacities and I think we really admired each other’s programs from afar. Seeing eye to eye on that curatorial vision is key—however, I think we both have our own distinct tastes and interests, too, so we can still complement each other in nice ways and introduce each other to new artists and works.
JH: Assembly’s first NFT project was the launch of Alejandro Cartagena’s “The 50 Carpoolers” on Foundation. How did that come together and what was your biggest takeaway from that experience?
SL: This project was among the first, if not the first, fine art photography collections to be minted on the blockchain and we worked closely with Alejandro to shape the project and find an audience and collectors to take an interest in the work. It took some time for us to navigate the space when it was so new, but in Summer 2021 we connected with a group of passionate NFT collectors that took a deeper interest in photographic work and helped drive conversations around long-term cultural value. Carpoolers went viral and after the sellout and success of that project, we worked with numerous artists including Rodrigo Valenzuela, Penelope Umrbrico, Alec Soth, Poulomi Basu, Daniel Gordon, and many more, to introduce important and innovative work in this emerging space, and established Assembly Curated as the first curated art photography NFT platform and community.
JH: You recently opened a physical gallery space, in Houston. How has it been so far?
SL: Yes, the Assembly gallery recently opened in the historic 4411 Montrose building located in the Museum District—just a stone’s throw away from numerous fantastic institutions and neighbors with some other great galleries in the building too. It’s been very interesting expanding to the physical gallery space after about a year and a half of operating virtually. With our background and experience in the non-profit world, of course, both Ashlyn and I care deeply about physical art experiences and community as well, and so it’s been very nice to return to having a gathering space for meaningful connections to happen around art. We missed that! We’ve also been pleased with the warm reception from the Houston art community, and are thrilled to see more artworks going to collectors and museums since we’ve opened the doors.
JH: Tell me about the current exhibition!
SL: On view now is a solo exhibition, and the U.S. debut, of works by Vasantha Yogananthan from his ambitious and moving series A Myth of Two Souls. The work is a photographic retelling of the epic tale, the Ramayana. Drawing inspiration from the imagery associated with this myth and its pervasiveness in everyday Indian life, Yogananthan has retraced the legendary route from Nepal to India to Sri Lanka through this transformative body of work. He has developed the work over the past decade and recently completed the seventh and final chapter of the project, entitled Amma, so we’re absolutely thrilled to show this now in Houston. This is an exciting moment for the project, and we expect more U.S. collectors and institutions to recognize the importance of this body of work.
JH: Often when people talk about emerging technologies and art, they also bring up decentralization and the removal of gatekeepers. So how do you approach curation with a web3 ethos?
SL: I believe that gatekeeping is a very different thing from curating or representing artists and helping them navigate the space. As an artist myself, I understand the value of having someone on your team who is truly working with you to help set you up for success. In the NFT space specifically, things are evolving so rapidly and there is a lot to learn for those that are new to blockchain technology or the idea of digital ownership and provenance, so we also see ourselves as providing real education for both artists and collectors. In terms of curating, we’ve been early in driving the conversations about value that we want to see happen for this emerging space. We believe strongly in art that changes the way we see and think about the world around us, that tells memorable stories, that shifts our understanding of the medium of photography, or, in Web3, is conceptually responsive to the technology itself. So we feel it’s important to champion those things and support artists and collectors where we can.
JH: What does success look like for Assembly?
SL: For us, beyond the work itself we really focus on the artists—the individuals behind the work. So if we can make a positive impact for an artist’s professional practice and they are expressing to us how meaningful the experience of working together is, we see that as the highest level of success. In the short and long term, we simply hope to see more of that happening. With our physical gallery space and our virtual platform, long term we plan to grow and evolve as they continue to highlight some of the most important and innovative work being made today.
JH: What are some of the new possibilities you see on the horizon for fine art photography? What are you excited about?
SL: Great question! Photography has always been intrinsically linked to technology, so this deeper development into the digital space with Web3 is actually no surprise—it makes a lot of sense and is particularly suited to a medium like photography. Personally, I’m excited to see how artists will innovate with new technologies and take us places that we can’t now predict. I’m also very curious to see how things will evolve with the bridge between physical and digital. What kinds of experiences can we have that are new and memorable? What can be made that alters our understanding of what’s possible? Over the past five or ten years even, we’ve seen a nice shift in artists working in photography becoming more and more interdisciplinary and that’s very freeing I feel, so I really hope that continues so we can experience more art without as many categories or constraints and really just focus on how images and ideas can transport us.
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