Denver — The Rocky Mountains are known for their national forests, ski resorts, rodeos , and river rafting -- but not for cultural activities. In fact, many of the inhabitants of this region, particularly those who have moved here from the Northeast, consider the area a cultural wasteland.
But the stereotype will soon be outdated, if it is not already. Throughout the region there is a cultural ferment going which cuts across the range of artistic endeavor.
In part, this reflects a national trend. As sociologist Amitai Etzioni noted shortly after the King Tut tour: "Tut-mania . . . is just one point of the American switch to greater preoccupation with culture in general."
In the Rocky Mountains, however, this trends appears intensified by the rapid rate of population and economic growth.
"I've seen tremendous changes in just the year and a half I've been here," observes Deborah Allen, assistant curator for contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum. "Of course, Denver is not New York. But it is catching up with other parts of the country rapidly."
It is in Denver, the financial center of the region, that this trend is most discernible:
* The city's new professional theater troupe has had a highly successful first season.
* Symphony ticket sales were up 40 percent last year.
* The Broadway musical "Annie" has been playing to full houses for an unprecedented five weeks.
* The number of art galleries is mushrooming.
* Both black and Hispanic dance troupes have been formed and are surviving.
* Poetry readings have begun attracting unprecedented crowds of 150 people or more.
"The fact that I've been able to make it over a year shows increased support for the arts," says Marty Sugg of Eclipse Galleries in nearby Boulder, which carries photography of only national-gallery quality.
Mr. Sugg attributes some of his success to the fact the he has concentrated on representational works, such as that by Ansel Adams, rather than on the avant-garde. But interest in contemporary art is also on the increase here.
Two years ago the Denver Art Museum had no contemporary art. Now it boasts several hundred works and has held 30 major exhibitions. One of these, "The Reality of Illusion," was the third-largest draw in the history of the museum.
"There have been a number of good artists in the area, but until recently they had not been getting public support," Diane Vanderlip, curator of contemporary art, says. "Local painters are getting tough, pushing limits and painting for themselves -- the only way to create significant art."
Corporations in the area have been particularly strong in supporting contemporary art, the curator reports. "They are more active here than in Philadelphia, where I come from," she says. High-rise office buildings springing up along Colorado's so-called Front Range (the area between the high plains and the mountains, which includes Denver, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins) have millions of feet of walls that need to be decorated, and a number of companies are choosing to cover them with original art.
"The last year and a half have been very encouraging," Cheryl Natzmer agrees; she is with the Howard Lorton Gallery in Denver, which specializes in contemporary Mexican art.
Miss Natzmer believes art buyers in this area are a little different from those back East: "People who come in are often puzzled about new techniques, but eager to learn. They are very independent, purchasing what they like and not worrying about what other people are buying."
Besides the visual arts, support for music and the theater appears particularly strong here.
After attending a concert at the Colorado Music Festival last year, Alan Rich , a critic with New York amagazine, commented: "One is tempted to ask . . . why so much aural beauty is squandered on a state which, with no music at all, would still be breathtaking."
Despite the poor state of the economy, fund-raising for the Colorado Music Festival is running ahead of last year, manager Mark Walker reports. Guest performers this year include pianist Malcolm Frager, violinist Ruggiero Ricci, and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. Still, Mr. Walker says it is difficult to attract guest artists to this area, particularly those from Europe.
"It just is not a correct step for them," he says.
Actually, there is some question about the reception many European musicians would receive were they to come. "People are star-buyers," maintains Robert Garner, a music and theater promoter. To back up his point, he notes that tickets for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic sold out three months in advance, while only a handful paid to hear Carlo Maris Giulini and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Nor has opera or ballet been able to gather a significant following in Denver. However, the Santa Fe Opera, a few hundred miles south in New Mexico, has a strong national reputation. And Salt Lake City is the home of a traveling dance company called Ballet West.
Santa Fe also has an excellent chamber orchestra. And Aspen, Colo., and Teton Village, Wyo., have summer music festivals featuring nationally known performers such as violinist Itzhak Perlman, flutist James Galway, Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Along with music, theater appears to be one of the most popular art forms in this area. This is illustrated by the experience of Denver's first professional theater group.
"We hope to sign up 5,000 to 6,000 subscribers and end up selling over 6,500. Our total attendance for five plays was 60,000," recounts Peter England, manager of the Denver Center Theater.
The professional troupe started ambitiously, staging "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," by Bertolt Brecht; "Learned Ladies," by Moliere; "Moby dick Rehearsed," by Orson Welles; and a work by Steve Tesich, a locl playwright best known for the movie "Breaking Away."
The new group complements a tight-knit network of community theaters in Denver. Although still struggling, community theaters here have experienced a steady growth since the mid-1960s, says Henry Lowenstein of the Bonfils Theater. "Not only has the growth been in quantity, but the quality has been immeasurably improved as well," he maintains.
In 1979, the Bonfils averaged 80 percent of capacity, a substantial improvement over past years. "There has been a tremendous growth in acceptance, " the longtime theater director believes. This includes a more broad-minded acceptance of avant-garde works as well as greater support for more traditional fare, he explains.
When Mr. Lowenstein comments that "although nobody can be sure of the future, there are a number of positive signs," he speaks for a number of art aficionados in this area. They hold high hopes for the future, but tempered with natural caution. On the one hand, there is the recent increase in popular support and the outlook for strong economic growth in the region. On the other hand, there is a keen appreciation of the trials and tribulations that have harried past efforts to foster the arts in this and a number of other parts of the United States.