Lansing State Journal
November 17, 2008
Saper builds business into an East Lansing mainstay
EAST LANSING - Roy Saper started his art collection as a teenager, spending most of the money he'd save to buy one painting.
That collection has grown into a business - and a downtown East Lansing mainstay. Over the last three decades, Saper has built up a well-known gallery that boasts 2,000 works of art and reaches art lovers all around the world.
As Saper Galleries enters its 30th year, Roy Saper, 56, still handpicks each artist and piece of art - just like the Victor Vasarely serigraph, or silk screen, he bought for $750 at age 17.
"I bought the artwork because I felt very strongly about it. It's artwork I would hang in my home," he said. "I strive for perfection in all that we do. I always want everything to be the best."
The 6,000-square-foot gallery at 433 Albert Ave. also has a custom framing shop. The gallery's works are originals and limited editions. They include paintings, sculptures, drawings, water colors, mobiles, ceramics and hand-blown glass. Original pieces range in price from $20 to $140,000, Saper said.
"What I like to do is hear what people want and acquire what people want," Saper said. "We bring in the artists that I like and I feel we can have a future relationship with - artists who I believe represent the interests of the people of mid-Michigan. It's the people of mid-Michigan for whom this gallery was created."
About 1,000 artists request Saper Galleries display their work, but Saper said he can accept only three or four new artists a year. If one proves popular, Saper may offer an exhibition.
An exhibition dedicated to the works of Theodor Seuss Geisel - better known as Dr. Seuss - is on display until Jan. 4. Previous exhibitions have included Norman Rockwell and Pablo Picasso.
The gallery has three full-time employees, Saper said.
Saper Galleries' commitment to continuing customer relationships beyond the purchase of artwork is what sets the gallery apart, he said. For example, the gallery may send customers biographical information about their favorite artists or invite them to special receptions if the artists are in town. The gallery also offers free delivery and installation.
"We've built this business with one transaction at a time, but we look at every transaction as the beginning of a relationship, not the end of a relationship," Saper said.
Art collector Kevin Scott, an attorney and law professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, moved to Okemos in 1996.
"Roy and his staff were so very welcoming and genuine," said Scott, 53. "I came quickly to understand this was high-quality, high service - an important life endeavor versus someone just making money in the art gallery business."
24-hour online chat
Saper also is the main person to respond to the gallery's 24-hour online chat on its Web site, sapergalleries.com.
It draws inquiries from 22 countries, from those searching for artwork to those needing framing services. Saper's known to answer inquiries as late - or early - as 4 a.m.
More than half of Saper Galleries' business comes from outside the Lansing area. Last month, 60 percent of October sales came from out of state, and the majority of those were outside the country, Saper said.
He declined to give exact figures, but said the gallery is profitable. It has about 7,500 recent clients.
One industry expert said Saper is ahead of the online game.
A recent readership survey found half of 24,000 readers of "Decor" trade magazine have Web sites, managing editor Kristin Stefek Brashares said.
"You would think in this day and age, with the amount of people who are online shopping, there would be more. I would say our industry is kind of slow to get into the Internet," said Stefek Brashares, whose art and framing publication is based in St. Louis, Mo.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported 6,328 retail and wholesale art dealers nationwide in 2002, said Dimitrios Delis, marketing research director of the Jackson-based Photo Marketing Association. They made $4.2 billion in sales.
Michigan was home to 173 art dealers in 2002, making $134.5 million in sales, the Census Bureau said.
In 2007, there were about 6,000 independent framing shops in the United States, a $2.8 billion industry, Delis said. About 800 art galleries offer framing services.Additional Facts
East Lansing Towne Courier
November 16, 2008
Roy Saper's 30th year
Admirer of great art, talent
By DAWN PARKER
EAST LANSING — From Rembrandt to Picasso, to Norman Rockwell and Peter Max, Saper Galleries has exhibited the works of the masters over the last 30 years.
The gallery is celebrating its 30th year of creating noteworthy and unique art exhibitions that have received international acclaim, all at its downtown East Lansing location.
East Lansing resident and gallery owner Roy Saper started the business in 1978 at his former Bailey Street home, soon after completing his graduate studies in economics at Michigan State University.
He began collecting original works of art as a teen-ager.
"I remember when I was a young teen-ager at home in Flint, taping reproductions of works to my walls in my basement bedroom at home," Saper recalled.
It was the early 1960s, and the Beatles had yet to appear on Ed Sullivan's show. There was the lure of music — a longed-for guitar appeared on his bed one day, thanks to his parents — but the pull of art was much stronger.
"A cousin of mine reminded me about how, when I went through Chicago, I would buy works of art," Saper said.
"I've always had this fascination for the talent and ability of others. Not just in the visual arts, but anyone who has great command of their field, be it speaking, writing, thinking, journalists — people in all fields. You admire great talent and ability."
Despite his youth and relative lack of funds, Saper pursued his passion.
"My admiration was so great that I put my money where my mouth (was) and said this was so beautiful, I want to own it," he said.
Saper's development as an artist included spending his 10th grade year at the Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. He played the violin.
"There were about 200 of us kids from all over the world, and they were (each) the equivalent of the valedictorian or concertmaster from their school," he recalled.
"Everyone was phenomenally smart, phenomenally talented. It was a great school, a great experience."
His collecting got more serious as a Michigan State University student, as Saper began attending auctions around Lansing.
"I remember going to those auctions and buying works of art. I had never heard of the artist, but I loved the works of art," he recalled.
One memorable evening, the 17-year-old spent the then-staggering sum of $750 for a painting by 20th-century Hungarian-French abstract artist Victor Vasarely.
"I did it because I loved it so much, I wanted to have it," he recalled.
The business formed when friends wanted to buy art from his collection, most of which came from New York and other art centers of the world.
"A friend of mine in New York loved some of the works I had from my descriptions of them," Saper said. "She bought some of those works of art that I had, and I came to the realization that if someone in the mid-Michigan area wanted to acquire an Alexander Calder lithograph or a Victor Vasarely, where would you go to get it? You wouldn't go around here - you couldn't find it."
Saper devoted much of his wages from lawn mowing and baby-sitting to growing his collection, and has rarely looked back over the last 40 years.
"What I've learned - when you see something you want, get it, because tomorrow it will either be ... unavailable or unaffordable," he noted.
Before opening his own place, Saper visited with gallery owners around the country, asking questions about the artists they represented, as well as how to gain a greater appreciation for different styles of art.
The predecessor to Saper Galleries, 20th Century Fine Arts, opened its doors in the summer of 1978.
Gallery takes shape
After operating the business on an appointment basis for seven years, Saper designed and built the current gallery building in downtown East Lansing, opening that location in 1986.
"1985 is when we started building this place," he said. "I realized I needed to take this to the next level."
Saper's wife, Nell, gave birth to their oldest son, Adam, the week before the gallery's debut. Younger son Jay is an East Lansing High School senior.
To build his art inventory, Saper polled public figures and asked who their favorite artists were. He then bought original works of art by those artists and that became the basis for the first artwork displayed at the new Saper Galleries location.
"I asked them, 'If they could have any artist in the world, who would they want to display in their home?' They all responded, and I think most people said (Marc) Chagall," Saper recalled.
"I went out and I bought artwork by all these people, and that became the first exhibition."
Along the way, Saper earned one of the inaugural Crystal Awards in 1988. The Crystal Awards honor businesses, individuals and organizations who have impacted the quality of life in East Lansing.
For its major exhibitions the gallery often brings to East Lansing some of the world's most popular artists, allowing the public (at no charge) to meet and speak with the artists. It's been an important presence in the lives of area residents, even though they may not realize it.
East Lansing resident Kevin Epling is a director of the Matt Epling Creative Arts Competition and a member of the East Lansing Arts Commission.
"As an East Lansing resident, what Roy has created with Saper Galleries is a jewel in the crown of East Lansing. It's a wonderful facility for artists and residents alike, and Roy has brought great exhibitions to town, things people might not otherwise have had a chance to see," Epling said.
"On a personal note, he helped out with our art competition in judging, and that's just helping extend the arts to the next generation within East Lansing."
Contact Dawn Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 543-9913, ext. 506.
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