DENVER may cling to its cowboy past, but cultural and aesthetic sophistication is its future. Much of Denver's population is highly educated, an indicator of interest in the arts. Since tourism is one of the state's biggest industries, the well-being of the arts is important to the economy. People who come here to work or to ski also attend the theater, the museum, or the opera.
The Denver theater scene, led by the increasingly sophisticated work at the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC), is particularly lively just now with several fine small theater companies, active local playwrights, and an increasingly well-trained and professional acting pool.
The DCTC's four theaters are in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts complex with two larger theaters (the Auditorium and the new Buell), as well as Boettcher Concert Hall, home of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Opera Colorado, and two small cabaret theaters. In all, the DCTC is the second-largest theater complex in the country, just behind the Lincoln Center in seating capacity, but equipped with more than twice the number of stages.
DCTC, in its 14th year, is doing fairly well in these recessionary times. It is operating in the black with some high-toned, beautifully designed productions, emphasizing crowd-pleasing classics, but also introducing new plays. The Buell, which opened last year, offers Broadway road shows like "Phantom of the Opera" and "Camelot" to sellout crowds. Even the two cabaret theaters sell out regularly with long-running shows.
Small, alternative-theater companies, like the Germinal Stage Denver, the Mirror Players, and The Hunger Artists, continue to grow artistically and still manage to keep their heads above water financially.
All the arts suffer during a recession. But voters helped preserve the arts in Denver in 1988 with a 1/10th of 1 percent sales tax hike to fund the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), which includes the entire six-county metro-Denver area.
The SCFD is pouring about $17 million a year into the public coffers in support of the zoo, the Denver Botanic Gardens, the Denver Art Museum, the Natural History Museum, the DCTC, and many smaller groups, including theater companies and ethnic-arts centers.
"The SCFD has made all the difference," says Jane Hansberry, Denver district administrator of SCFD. "It allows them to do more outreach, to provide free access as well as allowing them to do more innovative programming."
More than 180 smaller arts organizations in the six counties have been greatly helped, she says, because $17 million is a great deal of money in the arts world. For example, it represents 1/10th of the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts. Participation in the arts is up, Ms. Hansberry says. Major cultural institutions are going out to schools and communities where arts program cutbacks have taken their toll, which in turn encourages attendance.
Because Denver is engaged in massive building projects, Denver residents also voted a "1 percent for the arts" law: Any building costing over $1 million must set aside 1 percent of the cost of the building materials for art. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this law is the new airport, which has engaged some 30 artists in projects of many kinds, a huge boost to the visual-arts community.
Meanwhile, the Denver Art Museum is in the midst of major renovations. The Natural History Museum rides the line between art and anthropology with its Aztec exhibition. The Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities has just completed renovations and is enjoying enthusiastic support from the community.
The back-from-the-brink rescue of the symphony orchestra continues here. The Denver Symphony Orchestra collapsed several years ago under the weight of deep debt and internal strife. The musicians themselves have retrieved the symphony from ruin, renamed it the Colorado Symphony, and they participate in every aspect of its operation: outreach, programming, and marketing.
The symphony offers free concerts, informal "blue jean" concerts, and programs to help people get to know the musicians almost one-by-one. Everything has been done to remove the high-brow stigma of concertgoing, including programming popular works.