Several world-renowned arts festivals have made their homes in Colorado mountain towns, including the Aspen Music and Vail International Dance festivals.
 

They bring in some of the world’s top performers. But few Colorado artists and companies perform at these events each year.

The last time a major Colorado orchestra performed at the Aspen Music Festival was in 1950.

Now, festival attendees are more likely to come across concerts by globetrotting, top-tier musicians such as violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Joyce Yang.

Even the Aspen Chamber Orchestra, which is part of this year’s festival, is made up of musicians who mostly come from out of town.

Music director Robert Spano says the festival’s appeal stems not just from the international roster of artists, but also from Aspen’s towering mountains and quaint downtown.

“I think it affects all of us who come here to be surrounded by all of this beauty,” Spano says. “It’s inspiring.”

No incentive to engage local artists

The same could be said of the Vail International Dance and Telluride Film festivals.

“Telluride is the site,” Colorado film commissioner Donald Zuckerman says. “It’s the theater, if you will.”

Zuckerman says the 41-year-old Telluride Film Festival has always been produced out-of-state. Less than 20 percent of its audience comes from Colorado.

So Zuckerman opts out of distributing taxpayer dollars to Telluride because he says the festival doesn’t contribute to the local film industry.

“Berkeley is where they put it all together," Zuckerman says of the festival's production base in Northern California. "I don’t think they have any real reason to pay a lot of attention to filmmakers here.”

Appearances by Colorado artists are rare at all three festivals.

The Colorado Ballet, for example, has only made one appearance at Vail -- in 2011. And that came about because Colorado Ballet artistic director Gil Boggs and Vail’s artistic director, Damian Woetzel, have known each other since their New York dancing days.

Woetzel’s programming decisions for the 26-year-old Vail International Dance Festival are largely based on his professional relationships.

“A lot of it has to do with who I see, who I know, what I hear," Woetzel says. 

The director says he hasn’t yet had the time to get to know Colorado’s top dance companies, like the internationally recognized Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and Denver’s up-and-coming Wonderbound ensemble.

Growing scene ignored

Garrett Ammon, the artistic director of Wonderbound, believes Colorado’s lack of showing at the big festivals has to do with the fact that perceptions about Colorado artists may still be stuck in the past.

 “I look at some of these big festivals in the mountains and they grew out of a very different time, when Colorado didn’t necessarily have a lot of cultural offerings," Ammon says. "If you’re looking to bring cultural experiences in, then you’re going to build the systems to do that.” 

The number of arts businesses in Colorado has grown from 12,000 to more than 19,000 over the past decade, according to data gathered by the national advocacy group Americans for the Arts.

Even though the local scene is flourishing, festival directors continue to have international priorities when it comes to programming.

The same is true of similar events across the country, like Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina. Like the Colorado festivals, Spoleto presents star performers against a beautiful backdrop.

“If you have an audience from all over the place, they are not simply coming to see the performers who are local," Spoleto Festival general manager Nigel Redden says. 

Communities still see benefits

Although local talent doesn’t often make it onto the stages of these events, the organizers feel some investment in their surrounding communities.

Aspen Festival musicians perform free community concerts and there is a large emphasis on education.

Many of the performers on stage are students from the festival's school.

While festival president Alan Fletcher says the percentage of in-state students at the school is low, he adds that the festival has developed long-standing partnerships with the College of Music at University of Colorado Boulder and the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver

The Takács String Quartet -- founded in Budapest, Hungary in 1975, but now based out of Boulder -- has been a mainstay of the festival for nearly two decades. Its members are instructors at CU Boulder's College of Music. And the Colorado Symphony Chorus performs every summer.

Telluride offers several free seminars and film screenings to locals.

Community engagement is particularly important for the Vail International Dance Festival -- two-thirds of its audience comes from the Front Range.

The Festival partners with arts education nonprofit Celebrate the Beat to host a series of free programs for elementary schoolers each year.

Eagle County Schools superintendent Jason Glass says this type of outreach couldn’t exist without the festival.

“We want kids to grow up appreciating art," Glass says. "This program helps us meet that goal."

During the last school year, the Vail International Dance Festival helped get 600 Eagle County students dancing. Ninety of those kids will perform during this summer’s festival.

It might be some time before Colorado talent makes another appearance at the Vail International Dance Festival. But Wonderbound’s Ammon remains hopeful that his company might find a way onto artistic director Woetzel’s radar.

“We have an open door policy," Ammon says. "If Damian wanted to come down and visit us, we would absolutely welcome him.” 

For his part, Woetzel says he is open to bringing in more local talent down the road.