Conversations With Michelle Joan Papillion

photo credit: Kristy Leibowitz

Art Basel Miami is a time to experience the work of some of the most respected and cutting edge artists within the states and beyond. Everyone heads to Basel with many different intentions in mind. However, the one thread that connects each and every attendee is their appreciation for art and its creators. While engaging with some of this amazing work, I became more and more curious about those behind the scenes responsible for discovering and providing platforms for these well-deserved artists. This is where Ms. Michelle Joan Papillion enters. She is the owner of Papillion, a contemporary art gallery located in Los Angeles' Leimert Park. I had the honor of chatting with her about her journey as a gallerist as well as what attracts her to emerging artists and designers alike.

There is an obvious fearlessness about you; I mean you did open your first gallery at a pretty young age. What gave you the confidence to begin this journey?

It started as a pop up [exhibit], really organic. I had an idea of an exhibition that I wanted to do and I couldn't find a gallery that fit my idea. So, I began with the pop up. It has really been a domino effect, I started with one month and made enough money to rent the space for another month. Day to day things were happening that allowed me to continue, it has been one foot in front of the other. I realized around year three that this was a 'thing' and if I focus really hard I could step it up to the next level. That is when I began to construct a new plan thinking about longevity and the next three to five years.

[In the beginning], you see the mountain , you see the top of it and you want to get there. But, you don't know what to do first. One thing I find about people who have an entrepreneurial spirit and are not sure how to get things going, most times you have something going you just have to be consistent and stick with it.

When did you fall in love with art and creativity in general? Did your upbringing influence you at any point?

It definitely started as I was growing up. I was always in a performing arts school and my parents made it a point to take me to museums and plays often. Both of my parents, though they are not artists by nature, are creative thinkers. They encouraged whatever spontaneous or creative ideas my brother and I came up with at a young age.

[I grew up in Oakland], the atmosphere of Oakland historically [is rooted in] the energy of the black panther movement. My mom and friends' parents were all part of that movement. There is this thing in Oakland of not waiting for something to happen but being proactive about making change. I think for me and the arts it is the same thing. Why wait? If you've got an idea you work hard at it and see what can be done about it.

Speaking of your background, you lived in New York for a few years before heading back to the West Coast. I always say New York is the greatest teacher. What did you learn while living there that prepared you for the next phase of your life?

Living in New York was a dream. The saying that "if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere" is so true. I am forever grateful and indebted to my time in New York because I know the little bit of success we've had in L.A. and the bigger success that is to come is based on the foundation I built there.

When I got to New York I started traveling everywhere. My time in New York and traveling is really what informed me about the kind of world that I wanted to live in and the kind of world that I wanted other people to know about. Traveling pretty much solidified for me that the idea of nationalism and being patriotic is cool but really everybody is the same. When you go and engage with people you realize they want the same thing everybody else wants. They want to feel safe in their neighborhoods, they want access to good food, they want to have fun and laugh with their friends and family. It's a basic human instinct. When you engage on a person-to-person level the barriers of being a specific thing becomes null and void especially when you're being genuine in the moment. I try to re-create some of this with my business. When people walk into the gallery they feel a welcoming atmosphere. It's not exclusive it's inclusive.

Let's talk more about the atmosphere you are creating. You've spoken in past interviews about creating the right spaces rather than waiting for people in the art world to let you in.

Yea, you really have to just get in there. You have a place and you have a right. Your voice is just as important as any of your peers who are already in [the industry] so really what are you waiting for?

You're also definitely providing platforms for emerging artists. What about an artist attracts you to them and/or their work?

I have to love everything that I see from them visually and I have to meet the artist and love that artist. I really do believe in every single artist that we show. It makes it easy for me to sell the artist's work because I am super behind them and I really love the work.

Similar to the way you are behind the artists you represent, you have more than a few well-respected and influential supporters, such as Jeffrey Deitch, the former director of MOCA in L.A. What do you believe attracts such supporters to the work you do?

I make sure that it's a genuine experience for anyone who comes in contact with me and anything connected to Papillion. I am the same way no matter what. I am the same with you as I would be with president Obama or the guy on the block in my neighborhood. I try to be genuine about what I say and do.

I also love what I do professionally. I am passionate and I'm not afraid to work. I think people like Jeffrey are inspired by those things, I do what has to be done. The other side of being a small business owner is that you have to do everything in the beginning. I started out with very little and built on that. Some people start out with more than I did but everybody has to do the work.

We are at Art Basel and there are so many established and emerging artists here. What artists are you excited about and who is on your list to watch?

I don't want to make it all about my artists but I am really excited about each of them. Samuel Levi Jones who we are working with now. Kenturah Davis who we've shown in the past as well as an artist we are showing in January, Lakwena who is from London.

Here at Basel I really like the Truth Booth that Hank Willis Thomas has. The Rubell Family Collection, I mean what can I say, they get it right every time. Here at The Edition Hotel they have these John Baldessari sculptures that are just amazing.

Well we can't leave without talking a bit about your style! Similar to your love for emerging artists you often wear up and coming designers. Which designers are your favorite at the moment?

For my party I wore this Adam Selman skirt, he's really fun and he's doing some stuff that is very contemporary. The night before that I wore a dress from a designer I love in Leimert Park, Batani Khalfani and it was a total hit. I also love Azede Jean-Pierre. And I can't forget about Hind Matar a great emerging designer. Since I am a gallerist I like to dress modestly but still cutting edge.

In the hour that we met and spoke, I gained so much knowledge about Michelle, her work, her motivations and what she envisions for her future. It was such an encouraging experience. To meet a woman with so much clarity about who she is and her purpose is refreshing and reminds me as a creative to keep going.

To dive into more of Michelle Joan Papillion's journey check out the full interview on

Papillion and Friends