Simple, Subtle, Quiet Beauty: The Verne Gallery Celebrates Its 70th Year

Michael Verne holding Zojo-ji, Shiba (1925), by Hasui Kawase. He is standing in front of Time II (1988), by Shihoko Fukumoto. Image courtesy of The Verne Collection.

It’s being done very quietly, but this month the Verne Gallery celebrates a remarkable anniversary—its seventieth year in business—making it the second-oldest gallery in Cleveland after the Bonfoey Gallery, established in 1893. Such longevity in itself is remarkable, but in this instance all the more so, because the Verne Gallery is a bit of an anomaly in today’s art world, where the little guys are increasingly being pushed out of business by large corporate entities.

The Verne Gallery has achieved its success by clearly defining a specific niche in which it is unrivalled: contemporary prints by both Japanese artists and Americans who live in Japan, as well as a thorough, disciplined focus on an unusual business model. Rather than focusing on very expensive items for the very rich, the gallery carries art that is affordable for those with a more modest income, and Michael Verne devotes a lot of attention to quietly educating his clients. Probably in large part because of his personal touch, the Verne Gallery is a little goldfish that has survived in a fish tank full of sharks.

That it ever came into existence is something of a miracle. Its origins date back to 1953, when a young Navy lieutenant named Daniel Verne and his wife Mitzie were stationed in Japan. Since Daniel was an oral surgeon, he was allowed to live off base. While the couple had only a modest income, they were stationed first in Kamakura, where many of Japan’s best art dealers had their shops, and later in Hayama, not far from the Emperor’s summer palace. Mitzie knew nothing about Japanese art, but she established friendships with Japanese connoisseurs, and art dealers such as Hiro Bayashi, who helped her learn.

Yuko Kimura, Indigo Mountain: Traces of the Past, 2023.

Many of her friends thought Mitzie was a bit crazy, but at this time Japan was still reeling from the devastation of World War II, and it was struggling to modernize. Traditional Japanese art was very affordable. An eighteenth-century Japanese scroll she purchased for $15 for her personal collection was lent a few decades later for display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. When they returned to Cleveland, Daniel and Mitzie kept up their Japanese friendships, and Mitzie quietly built up a business as a dealer in Japanese art, working out of her house.

Their son, Michael, who runs the gallery today, grew up with a normal boy’s interests in sports and business, although at some level he was aware that the art that his mom was handling, and that hung around the family home, was a bit different and more interesting than the duck prints in the homes of his friends. He became a connoisseur of the Japanese aesthetic not through conscious study, but through a process of osmosis. After graduating from the University of Denver, Michael worked for a year or so at a Hyatt Hotel in Long Beach, California, but found that dealing with difficult guests—including one Michael interrupted emptying his revolver into a photo of the Ayatollah Khomeini—was stressful and unnerving. He returned to Cleveland and earned an MBA from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

After graduating, Michael decided that he would make a try at print dealing as a business. With the help of Professor Roger Welchans, he opened a little shop on the campus of John Carroll University (JCU) and also started driving his station wagon to print shows in places like Washington, DC; Chicago; San Francisco; and Los Angeles. Michael was invariably the only art dealer from Cleveland. A big break came when he was accepted to the Works on Paper Show at the Armory in New York, where he set up a booth next to some of the world’s biggest art galleries handling big ticket items. They operated on a different business model and were largely populated by a few pretentious salesmen in expensive suits, looking too aloof to handle a simple question. Michael’s booth was packed with customers and conversation. In five days, he sold more art than he ever had.

To be sure, keeping up with a fast-changing world has been a challenge. Today, booths in many of the major art fairs have become prohibitively expensive. But Michael has survived by moving to book fairs and other venues. He also moved from JCU to the site of a former neighborhood grocery store in Little Italy.

A word about what Michael Verne handles: the term “modern art” can be defined in many ways, but to a surprising degree what we now describe as modern art was the result of a new dialogue between East and West, when the French Impressionists discovered Japanese prints and a new way of seeing the world, and consequently developed a new mastery of bold patterns and colors and new ways of representing space. In exciting ways, the new artistic tricks they learned also lifted viewers into new forms of aesthetic awareness and consciousness. Over time, Western artists discovered other forms of Japanese art, notably Zen ink painting, which is closely linked with Zen practices of meditation. Paintings of this sort impart qualities of serenity and mindfulness, and distill the mysteries and paradoxes of the cosmos into a few expressive gestures.

What the Japanese contributed to modern art, in short, was not only aesthetic delight, but also qualities of mindfulness and inner peace and strength, which are increasingly difficult to achieve in our hectic modern age. The art carried by the Verne Gallery represents today’s chapter of this story.

The Verne Gallery started out as a gallery of old Japanese prints. Now it carries art that’s almost all from 1900 up to today by artists whom Michael knows, and he can talk not only about the formal qualities of their art, but also about their lives and their particular spiritual and artistic quest. Indeed, he’s the author of a book about a number of these figures (published by Tuttle, the leading publisher of books about East Asian art), which he wrote in partnership with his sister Betsy Franco, the mother of the actor James Franco. Michael puts a lot of thought into what he carries and he doesn’t just handle anything: only the pieces by these artists that he feels are the very best. You may well have your personal favorites, but to buy from him is a bit like ordering a glass of wine in a Zack Bruell restaurant, where you know that whatever you order will be pretty darn good.

One of Michael’s top-selling artists lives right here in Cleveland. Yuko Kimura was born in the US, grew up in Tokyo, and received her BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she won the Agnes Gund Traveling Award. Her creations are now featured in a show of work featuring Japanese hand-made paper, Washi Transformed, which will travel to sixteen different museums over the next four years. Her work draws on ancient Japanese aesthetic principles but explores them in new ways.

Kimura writes, “Mushikui is the Japanese word for wormholes. In 2006, I discovered some worm-eaten Japanese woodblock book pages in an antique book fair in Japan. I was fascinated looking at the nature of the paper. Mushikui usually make old prints less valuable; however, for an artist like me, they have become wonderful materials for my artwork. The mushikui create irregular shapes on paper that have a subtle, delicate, textural beauty. My mushikui collages create something new by reusing old material. The tactile quality and simplicity of my work is related to the aesthetics of wabi sabi. Wabi sabi is the beauty of things, imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”

Most of the contemporary art world is about shocking you with things that are difficult to understand. The Verne Gallery, instead, focuses on what the Japanese describe with the term Shibui: quiet elegance. Shibui is the aesthetic of simple, subtle and elegant beauty, and of achieving a connection with the essence of nature by focusing on the raw loveliness of little details that we usually don’t take the time to admire and appreciate. The gallery’s product is art that you can afford that will also quietly transform your life. It’s a wonderful place to stop by for a visit, if only just to look.

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