In 1953, when Michael Verne’s parents were stationed in Japan during his father’s Naval service, they fell in love with the Ukiyo-e style of art. A term for “pictures of the floating world,” Ukiyo-e was the most popular art form of 17th-19th century Japan.
“My parents started by buying a pair of paintings for $15 each [in Japan], and they turned out to be the works of Shibata Zeshin—one of the most important painters of the early 20th century,” says Verne. “But they didn’t know that [at the time]. They just bought them because they liked them.”
And so the collection at The Verne Gallery in Cleveland’s Little Italy began. As Verne’s parents, Dr. Daniel and Mitzie Verne, continued accumulating woodblock prints, their collection slowly grew to include Japanese prints, paintings, and sculptures by artists such as Utamaro, Hiroshige, Hokusai, Kunisada, and Yoshitoshi—as well as many other important Japanese printmakers from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Verne Gallery has now been showcasing these stunning hard-to-find Japanese prints and paintings for over 50 years. “A lot of people take for granted that this little special Japanese print gallery is in Cleveland,” says Verne, who took over the gallery more than 30 years ago. “This is the one place in the world that you can see some of the highest-quality Japanese prints.”
Growing up in Shaker Heights, Verne knew from an early age that he was surrounded by something unique. “My background is a lot different than most in this business. I grew up kicking around soccer balls in Shaker Heights, and in my house we had old Japanese scrolls from the 18th or 19th century hanging...I knew from a very early age that this was not normal,“ Verne jokes.
After acquiring an MBA in Marketing from Case Western Reserve University, Verne fielded offers from top corporations, but his love of the art he grew up around committed him to the business of Japanese art. Over time, he has continued to grow the collection with pieces from the 1850s to present-day. Says Verne, “There are lots of galleries that have a lot more prints, but everything in this gallery is picked out visually and from the heart.“
The Verne Collection travels throughout the U.S. for exhibitions, showcasing up to 200 pieces per show. This week, Verne will appear in West Palm Beach at the Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show. Past exhibits include New York (IFPDA Print Fair), Los Angeles (L.A. Art Show), Miami (Art Basel at Ink Miami), Washington D.C.(Capital Art Fair), and Cleveland’s own The Fine Print Fair of Cleveland at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Verne also takes yearly trips to Japan to view and purchase works for the collection.
“Attending one of the most important shows in New York, tens of thousands of people come see the works,” says Verne. “But, in Cleveland, very few people come into the gallery.” As if perhaps to provide a reason for the somewhat low volume of local visitors, Verne explains, “It’s not the kind of art that is going to shock or disturb you...but brings a quiet elegance.”
Quiet Elegance is the title of Verne’s book co-authored with his sister Betsy Franco. Quiet Elegance: Japan Through the Eyes of Nine American Artists introduces the work of nine artists that spent years studying with Japanese masters of print, painting, weaving, and traditional papermaking techniques.
If the name Betsy Franco sounds familiar, it is because her sons are famed Hollywood filmmakers and actors Dave, Tom, and James Franco. In 2015 the Verne Gallery showcased works by both James and Tom Franco—and they were shocked by the response after James Franco posted the show on his Instagram account. “5,000 people showed up!” Verne exclaims.
While being a small gallery owner is not easy, Verne’s passion for the art and the opportunity to share his passion are what keeps him focused. He doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon and hopes Cleveland locals and tourists alike have the chance to enjoy the collection as he does.
“I hope people in Cleveland take advantage and see things that may only be seen in special museum shows. But here [at the Verne Gallery], they can actually touch it.”