For a while, it looked as though Boston might disappear from the country's cultural map. The city was once America's premier Broadway tryout town and groomed the theatrical tastes of several generations. But in recent seasons, the number of Broadway roadshows whistle-stopping here has declined; and those that do come give Boston short visits. The Metropolitan Opera has relegated the city from second place to last on its list of tour visits, and next year's visit has been scrubbed altogether.
To make matters worse, Boston's one venue for large-scale cultural productions, the Metropolitan Center, had fallen on hard financial times. Many local arts observers were predicting that it would not survive the 1983-84 season.
Boston's corporate-civic leaders were basically ignoring cries to save the center. By contrast, during the past decade or so San Francisco, Houston, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Washington, and a dozen other cities have marshaled their corporate and civic forces to build gleaming new performing-arts centers. Boston managed only to reconvert an aging music hall - and even that modest effort seemed destined for disaster.
The result would have meant that Boston would be the only major American city without a viable performing arts center.
To many Bostonians the issue has seemed remote, a concern of cultural mavens and the people who sell them tickets. The city has, after all, been faced with crime problems, alleged government corruption, and financial adversity. But many Boston civic leaders said the collapse of the Metropolitan Center would be felt throughout the city.
A rescue effort, however, has been launched, orchestrated by a classic cast of characters - an entrepreneurial corporate leader who marshals the efforts and money of banking, real-estate, and cultural leaders.
Boston's experience illustrated a lesson learned over and over again in a dozen other cities: Someone with lots of money and influence has to get involved. In Boston, the key figure turned out to be An Wang, founder of the high-tech firm bearing his name. The former Metropolitan Center now bears his name as well - the Wang Center for the Performing Arts.
At a time when one banker privately confided to this reporter, ''I wouldn't put another dime into that building,'' Dr. Wang came forward with a $4 million gift to the center - $1 million of it to be given immediately for the renovation of the building, the remaining $3 million in a matching challenge grant over the course of the next two years. (Wang has just announced plans for a new manufacturing facility just off the city's Chinatown and hard by the theatrical district where the center sits.)
As Britt Davis, executive vice-president of InterFirst Bank in Houston, puts it, a strong arts infrastructure ''has to do with the spirit of a city and its attitude toward itself.'' Many civic leaders in Boston have felt that the city's cultural self-esteem was ebbing away, while other cities with far less historical prominence as cultural capitals were enjoying infusions of talent and capital. For example:
* In Houston, a $47 million bankroll has been stockpiled against a proposed $ 65 million capital investment in a new performing arts center. This follows the nearly quantum leap in corporate contributions to the operating revenues of local arts organizations - from $300,000 in 1973 to an estimated $3.2 million this year.
* In San Francisco, a $42 million enhancement and refurbishment of that city's cultural centers is being completed, including expansion and improvement of the 50-year-old opera house and the erection of a $30 million symphony hall.
* In Atlanta, a $20 million art museum is being added to that city's Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center, which includes a $13 million performance center completed in 1968. The city's civic leaders have also raised $3.5 million toward the takeover and refurbishing of an old movie palace.
Before the Wang gift was announced, a handful of the Boston's cultural givers associated with the center began enlisting the aid of a consortium of banks that holds $5 million in notes incurred during construction of the center. The banks eventually agreed, after long persuasion from Wang and others, to forgive half the indebtedness and to negotiate more favorable terms for the repayment of the rest.
In addition, the New England Medical Center, which owns the land on which the center sits, signed a new lease, which makes it possible for the center to function more profitably.
Not that the future is entirely secure. The pipeline of big Broadway roadshows which was originally intended to provide the oil for the center's engine has been drying up of late. And Wang Center officials hedge their options when asked if the center will immediately launch into risky cultural ventures.
But the feeling among most observers here is that symbolically, the new venture shows that quaint old Boston wants to hold onto the cultural present.