How Assembly Propels Mid-Career Artists to New Heights

Longtime friends Ashlyn Davis Burns and Shane Lavalette shared a passion for photography and other lens-based arts well before founding their Houston-based gallery Assembly. In their previous professional roles—Burns at the helm of the Houston Center for Photography, and Lavalette leading Light Work in Syracuse, New York—the duo found themselves on remarkably similar paths, often exchanging ideas and aligning on how they believed the art world needed to change. These conversations, spanning nearly a decade, sowed the seeds for Assembly, a collaborative venture born from their mutual desire to help artists reach new heights.

As the pandemic unfolded in 2020, both Burns’s and Lavalette’s careers paused after the temporary lockdown-induced closures of their respective institutions. However, the unexpected turn of events provided an opportunity to channel their years of ideas into a new business. Assembly first launched online in March 2021. In May 2022, Assembly opened its doors in Houston’s 4411 Montrose building, a space hosting five other galleries. In its first year, the gallery held online viewings of artists, including Fumi Ishino and Alinka Echeverría.

Burns and Lavalette approached Assembly with ambitions to create a more equitable art world. “We’re very interested in new models for galleries and working with artists in expansive ways, so we developed this concept of working holistically with artists,” Lavalette said. Instead of simply providing an exhibition space, Assembly helps its artists with grant applications, book pitches, networking opportunities, financial advice, and more.

In part, the artist-first gallery model was conceived by the founders’ experiences as nonprofit directors. “We’ve really been able to leverage our contacts and relationships that we had in the nonprofit setting and translate them here through matchmaking artists to the right funders for their projects,” Burns said. “I think some galleries do this behind the scenes, but it’s not a real focus because it’s not the bread-and-butter income. But we think that if the artist succeeds, then we’ll succeed.”

Still life with jerk chicken, 2022
David Alekhuogie

Assembly

Fuerte, obrera y libre, 2018-2019
Cristina Velásquez

Assembly

At first, Assembly debuted as an exclusively lens-based gallery (encompassing photography, mixed-media, and video art), featuring artists such as Cristina Velásquez and David Alekhuogie. However, as Burns’s and Lavalette’s vision for the gallery evolved, they began to embrace a broader spectrum of artistic mediums. This expansion reflects the gallery’s commitment to nurturing a rich dialogue among its artists and the broader art world.

Assembly opened its first painting exhibition this past November, Jason Stopa’s “DIY Paradise,” which is on view through February 24, 2024. The solo show features a collection of Stopa’s vibrant large-scale paintings, sculptural works, and works on paper that ignite conversations about spatial constraints and the concept of utopia. But above all, the exhibition ushers in a new era for Assembly, where painting and sculpture are a core component of the gallery’s mission.

Weapons #47, 2022
Rodrigo Valenzuela

Assembly

“The artists we work with who are lens-based are already creating work that has a dialogue with the broader contemporary art world,” Lavalette said, adding that their artists are often multidisciplinary and working across various mediums. “For us, it was a natural transition because we’re most excited about the fringes of photography and get excited about artists who explore other media.”

The gallery is also thoughtful about the career trajectory of the artists it seeks out. “A lot of the artists we work with are at that mid-career point where maybe they’ve had institutional success in one part of the world but not another,” Lavette said. “They’re really ripe for museums to pay attention to their work. They’re really sound investments for collectors who are interested in supporting a great artist making important contributions but with an understanding that they’re on an exciting trajectory.”

At the same time, Assembly also aims to connect its artists with Houston’s art scene. Although Houston is home to numerous high-profile galleries and institutions, Burns and Lavalette identified a gap between local artists and collectors. Specifically, they observed that Houston’s collectors often favored artists on the East or West Coasts over those within their city. By presenting artists at pivotal moments in their careers, Assembly seeks to cultivate not only the artists but also Houston’s art market and collectors.

On the horizon, Assembly is preparing to present work from Misha de Ridder, a Dutch photographer whose work resembles painting, at the gallery during FotoFest 2024, Houston’s international biennial focused on photography and mixed-media art. This upcoming exhibition is yet another milestone in Assembly’s mission as a catalyst for artistic development—within Houston and beyond.

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