The Art of Diversity: Perspectives from an Art Empress

The art world might seem colorful and forward-thinking, but it’s just as behind in diversity as some of the more conservative industries. Like all other businesses, however, it does have its standout stars that break the white-male mold. Michelle Joan Papillion is one of them.

Papillion opened her second Los Angeles art gallery in February and also runs an art advisory business under the umbrella of her company, Papillion Arts. At 32, her five-year-old business allows her to pursue the same passions she had growing up: to create and surround herself with similarly artistic people.

“I always joke and say that I’m a lazy worker because working for someone else, it was never a hundred percent,” Papillion said. To realize her dream of being her own boss, she decided to start her own company when she was in her 20s. “As time went by I started realizing I would spend what people call ‘the best years of your life’ working for myself and building my own art empire.”

But it wasn’t easy for a black woman with the education but not the experience of her contemporaries. Papillion talked with Diversity Executive about the lessons she learned and advice she has for others.Michelle Joan Papillion

What did you learn from your experience as a woman of color starting her own business?

We live in America, and there are deep-rooted issues that stem from race, gender, and social and economic statuses. It’s not always so easy dealing with those challenges, especially when you talk about business when you are a minority business and you need to apply for things like credit or a loan … It’s possible to move ahead, but you have to recognize those challenges before entering into that realm and devise a plan that will allow you to get through them easier. That takes foresight, understanding the grander vision you have for your company and knowing you need to navigate accordingly.

How did you navigate those challenges?

I decided to not focus on the fact that this [art] is a white male dominated area but more with the approach of “I can bring something very special and spectacular to this circle.” Art is about many things, and the voice I have is not represented, but is equally important and will be appreciated if I really push to make it visible.

I also didn’t allow other individuals with limited cultural experiences to affect me on a more emotional level. I use those moments where I could have not been included in something as an opportunity to appreciate and understand the value that they bring to the table as well as allow them to be able to appreciate the value of what I’m bringing to the same table. Both are equally valid in the world. In the contemporary art scene, what I bring is just as important as another person who does what I do but comes from a very different background and perspective in life.

Is it hard to get past the emotions that might devalue what someone with limited cultural experience brings to the table?

Racism is very real in this country, and I’m aware of that. There’s still a way to work around moments where racism is in play, or you feel like nepotism is in play or you feel there is an elitist moment that’s happening where you’re not to be included. The way that you really take those standout moments falls back into having confidence within yourself and within your abilities.

You know your capabilities are just as outstanding as those of the other people in the room … everything you’ve done in your career has allowed you to be in the room that they’re in, and so own that position. Really embrace and stand firm in it because you worked hard to be there, you deserve to be there, just as they’ve worked hard to get there.

Once you’re in the room, how do you make sure they value your input as much as you value theirs?

Have an objective and an agenda. That agenda supersedes the levels of race or gender or any of the things that diversity would level out. You need to keep that constantly in the front of your mind.

I’m a woman. I’m black. I don’t come from a certain financial standpoint in life, and I’m young. These are facts and we can’t get around them, but I have an agenda I’d like to present in reference to my business and art, and that’s what I’m going to use to push it forward. It’s like staying focused: I need to convince everyone else in this room why what I’m doing is the next thing and is thing that they should get behind.

What advice do you have for women trying to be their own bosses?

Don’t apologize for being a woman and having a dream. Being a woman is not a basis of an obstacle you have to overcome. It’s a fact. Love it, cherish it, relish in it … People really love who they consider an underdog, someone who’s fighting the good fight, who’s keeping integrity, working hard, doing what needs to be done and is all in. Use all of the things that can seemingly be a stumbling block — just flip it and make it a stepping stone.

Photo: Interior of PAPILLION art gallery.