PHOENIX — NSIDE the new Central Library here, the sculpture of a spacecraft appears to ascend from the lobby floor.
''This is art,'' says a teacher to gathering schoolchildren. ''It tries to make you think in new ways.''
The sculpture might be an apt metaphor for a recent liftoff in the arts itself in dozens of cities and towns across the American Southwest. At long last, the final frontier of the United States to settle and civilize is coming of age. The building of museums, theaters, galleries, and performing-arts districts is booming along with the cornucopia of culture to display in them.
''The Southwest is coming into its own vision,'' says Jean Paul Batiste, director of the Texas Commission on the Arts in Austin. ''There has always been a surplus of entrepreneurial energy and spirit - now those energies are maturing into concrete form.''
Once considered cultural backwaters to the long-established art meccas of the East Coast, cities such as Phoenix, Tuscon, Ariz., and Albuquerque, N.M., are boasting new buildings and art districts of their own. They have joined with longer-established communities such as Taos and Santa Fe, N.M., Dallas, Houston - and latecomers like Austin, El Paso, and San Antonio - to make the Southwest the country's biggest cultural boomtown.
''We've seen a higher percentage of growth in local arts agencies in the Southwest than any other section of the country,'' says Bob Lynch, executive director of the National Assembly of Local Arts Councils, who just finished a three-year national survey of the arts.
The arc of new activity stretches from Oklahoma City to Denver to San Diego, but is most pronounced in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The flowering of the arts here is both from the top down - new arts centers and foundations; and from the bottom up - art districts, lofts, underground presses, and street art. From painting, opera, and sculpting, to poetry, theater, and photography, nothing is left out.
The right combination
''What has happened in the Southwest is that the perfect political, economic, and social circumstances are converging all at once,'' says Inger Jirby, a painter who has seen such patterns in Greece, London, and SoHo. ''When you have the excitement of new mixtures of people, new possibility, and a social structure that is not too rigid, the arts begin to explode.''
In Phoenix, evidence of this trend includes the library building, expanded homes for the Phoenix Art Museum, the Heard Museum, and Phoenix Theatres, and the renovated Orpheum Theater. By approving a civic bond measure in the late 1980s, Phoenix followed a model provided by Houston, Dallas, and Denver in using public money to consolidate a communitywide vision of the arts.
Two hours south of Phoenix, Tucson has created a different model: renovate a dying downtown and create an art boom by forming funding partnerships with city departments such as transportation and housing. Pass a dollar-per-room hotel surcharge. Restore old buildings with volunteer help from local artists and watch real estate values rise.
''By consolidating all these ideas in a relatively small area, we've revitalized our downtown, no question,'' says Diane Magie, executive director of the Tucson/Pima Arts Council. The same plan has worked in smaller cities as well, such as Post, Texas, population 3,000.
America's recovery from recession as well as the Southwest's emergence from the oil and real estate collapses of the late 1980s were the first steps in the surge of art. Both dovetailed with the clamor for a quality of life here equal to its quantity: a population that packed in during the 1980s at three times the national rate.
The corporations that depend on diverse, creative populations for employees are supporting culture as a means of attracting that diversity and fashioning a creative outlet for employees and families.
''Given the population explosion, we needed the arts infrastructure that wasn't yet here,'' says James Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum. ''At first there wasn't a lot of private money, but that has all changed.'' Such companies as Tenneco, Tandy, Southwestern Bell, and Exxon have become major supporters of the arts here. Several benefactors have donated fortunes to new museums in various states.
For now, Texas is the recipient of the most such personal and corporate largess. San Antonio has just raised $10 million for a new addition to its Latino American Art Center.
Austin has two museum expansions in progress with a total cost of $27 million. El Paso has a new $6 million museum project downtown, and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts is building an $85 million addition. ''Society here is beginning to understand that the arts can have multiple applications in ways that extend well beyond the traditional view of arts,'' adds Eduardo Diaz, director of San Antonio's Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs.
Texans have started accruing the nation's first state endowment for the arts and have begun a $25 fee for personalized ''art'' license plates - proceeds go to the arts.
''Within education, engineering, architecture, math, and even science, the public has matured in its view of what it can reap from its investment,'' Mr. Diaz says.
Not every city or sector of the arts is humming, of course. Although Santa Fe became the third-largest art market in the country in the late 1980s, sales have been flat in recent years. An influx of rich, jet-set refugees from urban areas sent rents for gallery space skyrocketing and forced some longtime tenants to move.
Several gallery owners complain that the sophisticated art buyers of the '80s have been pushed out by an influx of regional art based on cowboy and Indian motifs. ''There is still a great deal of quality art here,'' says gallery owner Linda Durham, ''but you have to sift through a lot more mediocrity to find it.'' She recently moved her gallery from the main artists' drag in Santa Fe to the small town of Galisteo, 25 miles away, when her monthly rent tripled from $4,000 to $12,000.
Renaissance in the wings
A Scottsdale, Ariz., publisher of an arts journal complains that the arts renaissance is bubbling but still waiting in the wings.
''There is definitely the makings of a renaissance here but there is not yet the kind of public support to make it happen,'' says Tammy Peplinski, publisher of Ashes Art Review.
Even with sales flat in Santa Fe, the city is buzzing over its first-ever international art festival to be held this summer, called SITE Santa Fe. The announcement of Santa Fe's new Georgia O'Keefe Museum in mid-November and the Neutrogena Corporation's donation of millions of dollars of fabric to the International Museum of Folk Art are also providing optimism.
''I'm so excited I can see a full-scale production of [Andrew Lloyd Webber's] 'Phantom of the Opera' living way out here in the desert,'' says Phoenix resident Trish Thoman. The production was possible because of improvements to the Grady Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University. ''Now I have no reason to ever leave.''