When I was a kid the Opera House on Merchants Row was full of commerce: offices and retail shops, and a lunch stand out back in the hut, for those who remember La Cone Unique. But the Ripley Opera House started as an actual theater, a cultural center from the time it was built in 1868, according to the Rutland Historical Society. And today, this unique space has come full circle in a way, back to its roots as a culture center. It’s full of art, from nearly top to bottom.

The 77 Gallery sits immediately to your right when you walk in. It was previously at 77 Grove St. and held on to its name when it moved to keep the connection. In the gallery’s front window, a gigantic scroll of paper is unraveled and laid out across the floor, then strewn up onto a pipe near the ceiling. To the left of the entryway is what looks like a mess not cleaned up after a party, neon streamers, a random folding chair. I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand either of them right off the bat, but I was still fascinated.

“Let me tell you about this show,” said Bill Ramage, who is kind of the Wizard of Oz/man behind the curtain of the downtown Rutland art scene. “This is by Janet Fredericks, and she has this whole nature of water connection. These drawings she actually put in a brook under water. She had water-resistant crayons and tried to draw the currents.”

The explanation shines new light on the scroll. The paper clearly emulates water, and now that I know the story behind it, it’s beautiful. It’s part of the current 77 Gallery exhibit called “Eclecticism,” which runs through Sept. 21.

“This is going to be a real challenge for most of the Rutland audience,” Ramage says about the other piece, and when I admit, “I don’t get it,” he laughs good-naturedly.

“You kind of have to read past the layers,” Ramage says. “It’s not just something to look at, it’s all about the content and the content sometimes is elusive.”

Up the hall we stop in the RUVT Gallery, which houses Ramage’s “The Rutland ‘Ideal City’ Drawing,” a stunning, life-size, cylindrical black and white drawing of downtown Rutland that encompasses more than 50% of the room. It’s a scale replica of what you would see if you were actually standing in Depot Park.

“This drawing is basically more about you being in the space than it is about the drawing,” Ramage says. “When I was drawing it, I had no idea what it was going to look like until I finished it, two and a half years after I started.”

Next we go one door over to the brand-new Artists Residence Gallery.

“We had a great reception here last night,” Ramage said Aug. 31. “A band and wine, and the food has yet to be put away. People just circulated around the three galleries.”

This gallery is specifically for the Artists Residency program run by Ramage’s daughter Whitney Ramage, a program that puts a call out to artists all over the world, selects around a dozen, and houses them for a month-long intensive. They create art on the upper level of the Opera House, culminating in an exhibit of work the artists make right here in Rutland. The last group came from everywhere from China, to Miami, to a native Rutlander.

But wait. There’s more. A few doors down on Merchants Row, we stop in the B&G Gallery. Its current exhibit, “The Photo Show,” is hanging through Sept. 28. It’s a stunning collection by many local photographers and some non-local.

Many visitors will recognize Robert Layman’s name, the former Rutland Herald photographer, who has several photos on display, which will be a departure for those who know his feel-good newspaper photos. One is of a chicken in a wooden box peering out from a small opening titled “Fate.” Another is a compromised nude photo of what appears to capture a stage of a sex-change operation.

“This is a long story,” Ramage explains,. “Robert took that photograph, but it has to do with one of my crazy projects. When it’s done it should be interesting, but this is part of the process.”

In the evolution of the galleries, Ramage has been a key part of managing them as they consistently draw more and more people to Rutland. When I remark what great spaces to be able to do this in, Ramage says, “This is Mark Foley, he’s a great supporter and he lets us use all these spaces. It wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for Mark.”

“I’ve been doing this gallery thing for 45 years,” Ramage said. “I ran it in Castleton for a long time, and I’ve been involved with all the galleries here for the last nine years. It started with a little gallery down in the alley, so it’s been an evolving process.

“A city like Rutland can use as much art as it can get,” he added, and referred to a recent show at the Grove Street gallery, in which every artist participating was 65 or older. There were 65 artists and about 400 pieces on display. “People were coming from all over the state to look at that show,” Ramage said. “It might be the first time in history that people from all over the state came to Rutland to look at art.”

And as he puts it, that’s one of the nuts he wanted to crack, and essentially what’s at the heart of these downtown galleries. Highlighting the good that exists here.

“The residents come from all over: They can’t believe what a great city this is,” Ramage said. “Every year (they) send out Instagrams telling people all over the world how great Rutland is.”

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