Leimert Park Village is a stretch of storefronts that looks like a small town square tucked into a big city. That's where Michelle Papillion has a new gallery, and she titled its debut show “Open.”

“It's really sort of an inside joke,” she says. “Even the day before we had our grand opening, people were like, 'Are you sure you're going to be open?' Because there was still stuff on the floors, a big construction mess.”

The space, like a lot of storefronts in the village that's just east of Crenshaw Boulevard, had been vacant for three years before Papillion arrived. “Mother Nature had taken over,” she says. She had to patch up walls and tile the floors before installing the show.

But on the evening of Feb. 15, as scheduled, she had a pink neon sign saying “Papillion” above the entrance and work by eight emerging artists installed inside, including David Sigmund's wood-laminate sculptures in the window; colorful keyboards by Nzuji de Magalhaes against the sidewall of the first room; and Raksha Parekh's sugarcane-paper tendons hanging from the ceiling in the second room.

About 500 people came through that night, among them London dealer Jay Jopling; former MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch; neighborhood residents; and artists' parents and siblings. Papillion planned to close by 9 p.m. Instead, she was locking up a little after midnight.

Danielle Dean, a London-born L.A. artist whose work is elegantly populistic and who has a video in “Open,” went for post-opening drinks with friends. She recalls one of those friends announcing, “I just want to propose a toast to what I think is an emerging scene.”

Painted pristine white, with wide front windows, Papillion's building was built at the end of the 1920s, when developer Walter Leimert spearheaded most of the business construction in the heart of the planned community he'd named after himself. It was after 1948, when the Supreme Court banned racially restrictive covenants that had kept African-Americans from owning property in better neighborhoods, that relatively well-off black and Japanese-American families started moving in and white ones moved out. And it was after the 1965 Watts riots that Leimert Village began gaining a reputation as a culture center for black L.A.

Brothers and artists Dale and Alonzo Davis moved to Leimert in 1967 and opened Brockman Gallery in the space Papillion now occupies. It supported a number of important black L.A. artists, including David Hammons and Samella Lewis. Noah Purifoy, who will have a retrospective at LACMA next year, lived in the building's upstairs space for 20 days in 1971, as an art performance that approximated stereotypical unkempt conditions in which “culturally deprived” people live. (That space is now Papillion's office.)

A couple decades after Brockman Gallery closed, Eileen Harris Norton — Watts native, former wife of software entrepreneur Peter Norton and avid arts advocate — tried opening a space in the same building in 2010. So while Papillion is the only gallery space on the block right now with the seriousness that white walls connote and a roster of young artists, it's not the first.

Most contemporary art galleries that have opened in L.A. in the last two years have opened in or near Culver City (like Von Lintel Gallery) or Hollywood (Hannah Hoffman). They're close enough to other, already respected galleries that their proximity gives them some legitimacy. But if you open in a place galleries aren't, you have to believe a neighborhood can embrace you and collectors will come to you.

Papillion, an Oakland native, has been talking about a Leimert Park renaissance since before her official opening, though not in a boosterish way. It's more like she's tossing out a possibility, while intentionally referencing the Harlem Renaissance. “It was just the vibe,” she says of that 1920s New York moment. “You have these people in a concentrated space. Leimert has that but it's not been activated in a way that's really making traction,” or at least it's not being activated as it could be now, even though a number of young and midcareer artists work nearby.

“It's back to square one,” says artist Ben Caldwell, a longtime Leimert resident, who started the monthly Leimert Art Walk in 2010 and, with USC professor François Barr, has been working with students and Leimert artists to turn old phone booths into sidewalk storytelling machines that offer different first-person narratives or other historical information, depending on which numbers you push.. “My real interest is in how an artist could work with what a neighborhood already has in it.”

Caldwell moved to Leimert in 1970, when he was a film student at UCLA, and began running the Brockman Gallery's alternative-film program. Though he left to teach at Howard University, he returned to Leimert in 1984 and bought the building at 4343 Leimert Blvd. Called Kaos Network, the space hosts film programs, a media lab and music events. It's a block from Papillion and near the buildings that noted artist Mark Bradford may be turning into a community art space within the next year, with support from the Hammer Museum.

Now, with a Crenshaw Line Metro station set to open in the area in six or seven years, and the looming threat of outside businesses coming in, gentrification narratives have been introduced that strike Caldwell as off. Typically artists rent, and then get pushed out when wealthier interests move in to buy. But Caldwell owns his property (as does Bradford), which makes him optimistic about Leimert's near future. “When people climb out of the hole,” Caldwell says, referring to the Metro stop, “what will they meet when they see us here?”

If they climbed out right now, they would see Papillion's neon pink sign, which is always on. She wants to arouse the same excitement she felt as a new contemporary-art convert going to openings in New York, where she moved after graduating from Howard, eventually working as an independent curator. “It definitely wasn't a status thing,” she says. “You wanted to be there.”

She hadn't planned to leave New York until one day in January 2008, when she remembers having to take the trash out. “It was like, snow boots, coat, gloves. All these layers. I just thought, I'm done.”

She left for L.A. a week later. Because she had an idea for a show she didn't think she could do elsewhere, she opened the Papillion Institute of Art downtown in 2009, not expecting to stay open for more than a few months. But she was able to compel enough collectors to come there that the first show paid for itself. She kept organizing shows and art classes.

Many passersby had never been to art museums, let alone galleries. “People would walk by, stop, look in the windows, then keep walking. And then the next week they'd walk by and put their hands and their nose up to the window, looking in seriously,” she says. “By the fourth week, they'd be coming inside, asking questions.”

Interested community members have been less timid since she's moved to Leimert, sometimes coming in and then returning later with an aunt or co-worker.

“Open” is a friendly show of art that's mostly easy to engage with. The language in Dean's video, Baby Girl, is sometimes abstract, but the confessional style and footage from the rougher outskirts of Houston feels familiar. Samuel Levi Jones repurposed antique encyclopedias for two gritty, gridded wall works, which you can see through the front windows almost anytime, since the lights, like the neon, stay on. “So at night when you drive by, we're this big space that you can't miss,” Papillion says.

OPEN | Papillion, 4336 Degnan Blvd., Leimert Park | Through April 13 | papillionart.com

LA Weekly