40 Years of the Saper Galleries: Art and Technology

May 28, 2018

For many businesses, hitting one full year can be a big milestone. WKAR’s Jamie Paisley sat down with one owner who just reached 4 decades of operating in East Lansing: Saper Galleries.


Roy Saper has been bringing art to East Lansing for 40 years. It began when he was in his 20s running a new business out of his home in downtown East Lansing on Bailey Street way back in 1978, but even though many Art Galleries fold quickly, Roy’s grew and eventually needed a change of venue.

"In 1985 is when I bought this land." recalls Saper. "Interestingly, it was owned by Butterfield Theaters, who owned in downtown East Lansing, the Campus and the State Theatres, they owned this land. [A] vacant parcel in downtown East Lansing at the corner of Albert and Division so that nobody would build a movie theatre here. So, I drove to Southfield, I believe it was, and met with the owners of Butterfield Theaters and they quoted me a price for this land that was three times as much as I paid for my Bailey Street home. and I said "yes." And so I came back to the lot after I bought this and the weeds were growing across the sidewalk. And there were posts around the perimeter of the land- peremeter of the property. There were dead trees on the lot. But I went from there with this imagination of a contemporary-looking, really clean, really nice building with a lot of light."

Though the newly relocated Saper Galleries did have a weakness. An outdoor sculpture garden which left some items vulnerable to purloining.

'Wait. Hey, where's that 7-foot tall sculpture that weights hundreds of pounds?' And that's when I realized. - Roy Saper

"It was crazy. I'd come in in the morning, I'm looking out the window into our courtyard, and thinking, 'Wait. Hey, where's that 7-foot tall sculpture that weights hundreds of pounds?' And that's when I realized." says Saper, about the robbery. "So, to handle that, I spent more than a quarter-of-a-million dollars to enclose that courtyard and expand it. Make it a little bit larger. And I'm glad I did, because it brings, with the lighting that we have, it brings the outdoors in. So, you almost feel like you're outdoors. There're plants, it's beautiful location and it's a beautiful venue for viewing art."

After his youth in Flint, Michigan, Saper came to MSU in East Lansing where he eventually began studying computer science, a burgeoning field in the late 60s and early 70s. . But his love of art collecting shone through and Saper was an early adopter of digital pricing algorithms  and cataloging.  A key to Roy Saper of his 40 years in business.

Technology is the only way that business today can survive. No matter what business it is and we're proud to always be on the cutting edge - Roy Saper

"We were the first gallery, I think anywhere, which used the computer in a way that we still do and more galleries now do." say Saper, proudly. "Now we know every day what countries have visitors on our website and what they're looking at. Technology is the only way that business today can survive. No matter what business it is and we're proud to always be on the cutting edge of that and that's observed by those who find Saper Galleries, even though they might not be able to place Michigan on a map."

Because of its location, just north of MSU, there is a lot of student foot traffic who may have never visited a gallery before and have that deer-in-headlights look just walking into the building.

"I'll tell you what it is: There's this sense of awe and discovery when they come in." says Saper of the wandering MSU students who first encounter the Galleries as a museum of sorts, but with pricetags. "They look around, there first comment it 'I had no idea this place was so large in size.' Its deceiving from the outside. You see a little door. You see a brick wall, but when you come in, it *is* large and when an 18-or-20 year old comes in, often times they look around. They rush out and then about 5 minutes later, they come back with 2 or 3 friends. That's a sign of success as far as I'm concerned."

Last week, Saper Galleries and founder Roy Saper celebrated turning 40 years old. You can swing by and check out the hundreds of works of art in their East Lansing building found on the northwest corner of Albert and Division.