A display of nude figures inside a space at the Opera House that faces Merchants Row has been blocked by a white screen so they can’t be seen from the street. The arts group that put up the exhibit of drawings isn’t complaining, and the owner of the building said he expects to continue collaborating with local arts groups.
Whitney Ramage, residency director of 77ART, said the exhibit featured curated works by Alida “Allie” Wilkinson, who was an artist-in-residence in Rutland when they were made, expecting to go live in the spring. Because of the pandemic, it was delayed until about two weeks ago.
Ramage said the pieces had been displayed in the past but not in such a public way. The response to COVID-19 means the space, where the clothing store Clay’s had been until it closed in June 2018, isn’t open to the public. But the display window opens out onto an area of Merchants Row that sees a lot of pedestrian use.
Ramage said she feels “somewhat responsible” for the concerns.
“These nudes did not ring an alarm bell for me. I’m so used to seeing the nude figure in art, and so is Beth (Miller, who curated the exhibit),” she said.
Mark Foley Jr., of MKF Properties, said he didn’t see anything offensive about the art in the display, either. Foley, owns the opera house, as well as 77 Grove St. where the Herald has its offices. However, when he heard there had been some complaints, which he said were repeated to him without the complainants names, he contacted the people from 77ART.
Ramage said they wanted to find a solution but didn’t want to take down the artwork. “We hadn’t intended to offend anyone in the community,” she said.
Ramage said the people at 77ART wanted to respond appropriately.
“The reason that we decided that, although it does compromise the integrity of the show, it was important to put the screens up because it’s important that we respect the views of those people who would be concerned,” she said.
Speaking from her apartment in Brooklyn, Ramage said she was two blocks from Grand Army Plaza, where Bailey Fountain includes multiple nude statues.
According to Ramage, the message conveyed to the arts group that has been nurturing the arts community in Rutland was not “aggressive,” but suggested there were community members who were concerned about whether the display in a very public location was appropriate for all ages.
The white screening, which appears to be printed on plastic adhesive paper applied to the inside of the windows, was developed after conversations between Wilkinson, Foley, city officials and the curatorial team.
“Is it ideal? Absolutely not. But the community is really important to us, and we wouldn’t want to do anything that would cause people to be uncomfortable,” Ramage said.
However, Ramage acknowledged that art can be provocative and push boundaries about what people experiencing it find acceptable.
“In some ways having this conversation is really productive … because it allows people to consider, ‘Oh, yeah, we do live in this rural setting where we’re not put into daily contact with certain things that are maybe a little more widely accepted in other settings,” she said.
Ramage said Wilkinson was sympathetic to the response and has been “really helpful and collaborative in brainstorming ways to censor the show without ruining it.”
Wilkinson’s month embedded in Rutland during her residency was helpful because she said she understands the community, Ramage added.
Foley said the situation wouldn’t change his support for art in the city and 77ART.
“Every interaction we’ve had with 77ART has been great. There will be no change in that. Frankly, I couldn’t be more supportive of their efforts,” he said.
Ramage said she didn’t know what the reaction to the exhibit will mean to the future of art displays in the city.
“Something new is always met with hesitation. Maybe people will feel differently in the future about nudes in public space. Maybe they won’t. We’ll have to play that by ear,” she said.