Since entering the NFT space with their genesis drop – Alejandro Cartegena’s 50 Carpoolers – the photo agency quickly realised the importance of maintaining a community in order to thrive. Now, as forerunners in the space, its co-founders look back on their journey into NFTs
As the NFT space continues to grow, artists and collectors alike have begun to understand the importance of establishing a community. Assembly is a photo agency, gallery, and creative studio founded by Ashlyn Davis Burns and Shane Lavalette in March 2021. In July 2021, Assembly launched their first NFT drop: Alejandro Cartagena’s 50 Carpoolers. Following a successful sale and nine more drops to date – including five sell-out series – Assembly is now a leading voice and tastemaker in the realm of photographic NFTs.
The co-founders had extensive experience working with photography nonprofits: Davis a the executive director at the Houston Center of Photography and Lavalette as a director at Syracuse-based Light Work, on top of a prolific photography practice. Neither come from crypto backgrounds, but they dived into NFTs with an open mind and a sense of responsibility. “A big part of why we became interested was the existence of smart contracts,” Davis explains. “The idea that royalties can support the artists we work with in five, 10 or 30 years from now made it something that we needed to dive deep into.”
Each of their curated photography drops became a learning experience. At the time of writing, Assembly has dropped nine collections, including five sold-out series such as Daniel Gordon’s Portrait Studio and Rodrigo Valenzuela’s Masks. “We really wanted to understand the landscape of NFTs. How should we operate in this space? What are the questions and concerns that are circulating?,” says Lavalette.
Assembly focuses on selling work that deals with themes that are inherent to the NFT medium. For example, Penelope Umbrico’s Range: Of Swiss Fort Knox (50 Generative Photographs) considers image circulation and ownership, and Cristina Velásquez’s El Nuevo Mundo employs this decentralised medium to confront the West’s simplification, sanitisation and erasure of indigenous culture.
However, since working on their first drop, Lavalette and Davis quickly realised that they overlooked a crucial element. “We underestimated the inherent connection between NFTs and the community. If we could go back, we’d advise others to spend a few months in the space, learning and even purchasing an NFT,” says Lavalette, who saw this process as a beautiful surprise. “We quickly learned that the collecting experience itself is very much connected to a desire to be a part of a community and to connect with the artist directly.”
The pair have worked hard to cultivate a space and community for these kinds of meaningful connections. Assembly’s community largely exists on Discord and Twitter, a fluctuating group of about a thousand that Davis describes as “creator-centric”. This community became the source of most of the bids on their drops.
Discussions proliferated both on public forums and direct messages. “The whole radical idea of the NFT space is this decentralisation where everyone has access and can dialogue with one another. We had Elijah Wood and Snoop Dogg on our Discord. This is what’s so mind blowing about this space as opposed to a more traditional fine art space, which has a very transparent set of hierarchies,” Davis says.
“I think there are a lot of parallels to the art world in terms of how things operate. On the flip side, many aspects are just entirely divorced from the art world and that’s the beauty of it,” describes Lavalette. Though there is a significant difference in access for artists and collectors in the NFT space compared to the traditional art world, parallels continue to exist between them. More often than not, emerging technologies do not sever existing hierarchies, but amplify the most crucial relationships within them.
Davis and Lavalette often find themselves operating in an advisory role similar to their role in the fine art world: introducing enthusiasts to artists they might be interested in, and helping collectors understand why certain works carry richer artistic and cultural values over others.
As new collectors enter the field, the advisory and curatorial role that Assembly takes on stems from the growing importance of community. Davis and Lavalette accompany this excitement with a measure of lucidity of where NFTs fit within the larger context of photography.
“I still think that NFTs are a niche within the crypto world. Art NFTs are another niche within that. And photography is an even smaller subset of that,” says Lavalette. “NFTs aren’t going to be for everyone, just like how exhibitions or books aren’t for everyone. All of these vehicles for photography should be fitted to the work itself and to the interest of the artists.”
Like many institutions in this nascent field, Assembly’s story is one of a coming of age, a story that we follow with fascination as it looks for meaningful ways to engage with people, photography and technology.