March 25 2009 12:00 AM

Not your parents’ art: Saper Galleries puts a personal touch on art dealing


When you think of an art gallery, what comes to mind? Maybe big, empty hallways with paintings on the wall, spotlights blazing across the canvases. Or maybe it’s a stuffy art collector with a British accent, displaying the masterpieces of Van Gogh or Monet.

Or maybe you’re already bored with the idea.

Well, walking into Saper Galleries, at 433 Albert Ave. in East Lansing, you realize that all your preconceived notions about art galleries are untrue.

Roy Saper first opened the gallery in 1978 in his home on Bailey Street in East Lansing and saw customers by appointment only. The gallery was the culmination of Saper’s dream to “buy artwork and share it with people.”

In 1985, things started to get too big for his home, so he looked for a new location.

“We looked all over the area: Lansing, East Lansing, Okemos,” he said. “Then we found this junky, vacant lot. So I designed our building, and we moved in May of 1986, a week after my son was born.”

Over the years, Saper Galleries has been host to a multitude of different art show. The 2006 Picasso show won Décor Magazine’s top award in 2007, and the ongoing exhibit on Dr. Seuss paintings is receiving great attention. Saper credits his years of success to his unique way of conducting business.

“There are too many followers and not enough leaders,” he says. “If you want to advance in this world, you need to be a leader. It’s easy to copy, but it takes a little more work to come up with something original. Rather than doing what others do, step back and ask, ‘how can I make it better?’ I’ve created something that seems right, and I’ve done my own thing.”

When you walk into Saper Galleries, you certainly can feel the difference between it and other art galleries. Either Roy or another worker immediately greets you and thanks you for stopping by. And there’s no pressure to buy as you look at the 1,500 pieces of artwork, ranging from paintings and sculptures to glassware and vases.

“Our doors are open,” Saper explains. “We try to make it like a public place, but it’s totally privately owned. It’s more like a living room, not a museum or a library. I want people to be totally comfortable. You can even bring in your homework and kick off your shoes if you want.”

In designing the gallery, Saper was very careful to be as environmentally friendly as possible. It’s a rarity to see lights on, due to the vast number of skylights, bringing in more natural light, which Saper says is the best way to view art. And even when the lights do come on, there are sensors that will dim when no one is around.

The entrance has two doors, designed to prevent a blast of cold air from nipping at your heels. The walls are three times as thick as the average wall, helping to insulate the gallery.

“I tried to think of everything when designing it,” Saper said. “Starting from scratch thinking efficiently just makes more sense. Americans are too wasteful. We need to save resources and save money, especially now.”

Saper is really just concerned with helping people, not only in getting art but also helping themselves.

“I’m honest,” he says, “I’ll tell you straight, but in a positive way. If someone brings in their artwork, I won’t just turn them away; I’ll give guidance, tell them how to get people to pay attention to their work. We can all value from criticism from someone who has knowledge. I focus on helping people out, specifically in the visual art, and I always will.”

Saper Galleries has also helped out in selecting pieces of artwork in many Lansing-area businesses and public places. One of the more well-known pieces is the statue in front of Oldsmobile Park, the Lansing Lugnuts’ stadium: a baseball player autographing a baseball for a child, with two other kids seated on a bench nearby. Saper also has another big project up his sleeve.

“It’s intended for this area, and it will be one of the most significant sculptures in the area. I’ve flown to New York and Mexico City to work it out.” He adds with a smile, “But it’s not announced yet.”

Saper plans on being a permanent fixture in the area for another 30 years, if possible. It’s his dedication to the arts and patronage to the community that won him one of the City of East Lansing’s Crystal Awards in 1988, the first year they were awarded.

“There’s no expectation that you have to walk out of here and have bought something,” he says. “It’s about creating a connection to the artwork. Enjoy yourself, and if you’re not, then you haven’t been here long enough.”

Saper Galleries

433 Albert Ave., East Lansing 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Monday - Saturday (517) 351-0815