National arts agency's chairman headed to Central Valley

WASHINGTON — Starving Central Valley artists, sit up and take notice.

The chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts is coming next week for an unprecedented two-day visit. It's part of a getting-to-know-you tour that could pay dividends to a region that historically expects little from the federal arts agency.

"We're very eager to get out there," NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman said in an interview. "It's not a place where we've had a lot of presence."

A series of roundtable conversations and site visits start Monday in Fresno and carry on to Merced and Modesto on Tuesday, exposing Landesman to regional artists and the likes of the Gallo Center for the Arts and the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust's River Center.

The trip is a change of pace for the 63-year-old Landesman, a one-time Broadway producer and Yale drama professor, and it's a promising step for the region's arts advocates.

"It's exciting," said Amy Kitchener, executive director of the Fresno-based Alliance for California Traditional Arts. "We have the opportunity to show off some of the region's amazing cultural assets."

Kitchener and allies at the Irvine Foundation initially suggested the trip, Landesman's first to the region since becoming NEA chairman in August 2009. Kitchener and other arts-world veterans could not recall any similar regional visit from an NEA chairman.

The long absence is saying something, for an agency created by Congress in 1965.

In part, Landesman said, he now hopes to "see if we can get more applications" for future grants from the Central Valley. After all, he's got money to spend. In fiscal 2010, the agency offered $138 million in grants nationwide.

"We want to have a bigger geographical reach," Landesman said. "We want to be everywhere, in small districts, in rural areas."

The arts agency has provided 354 grants to California recipients in two rounds of funding this fiscal year. Only nine of the organizations receiving grants reside in the Central Valley or Sierra Nevada region between Chico and Bakersfield.

By contrast, more than 90 San Francisco-based organizations have received NEA grants this year, the agency's records show.

All told, California recipients have been awarded some $11 million during the NEA's spring and fall funding rounds in fiscal 2011. The Central Valley and Sierra Nevada organizations received a total of $255,000.

The money goes not to individuals but to organizations, such as the Sonora-based Sierra Repertory Theater, the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra and Fresno's Radio Bilingue. The grant recipients often repeat, year after year.

"Writing grants has been an art, and not every organization does that," noted Samuel Orozco, news director for Radio Bilingue.

Most recently, for instance, Radio Bilingue received a $25,000 grant to produce shows on Colombian music at this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington.

The Valley also eventually gets a share of the $1.1 million provided for statewide distribution by the California Arts Council.

Don't blame bureaucrats, necessarily, for the funding shortfall. Regional artists and arts organizations, too, may have to step up their game.

Relatively few grant applications come from the region, Landesman noted. For fiscal 2011, the agency received fewer than three dozen applications from Central Valley and Sierra Nevada organizations.

"It may simply be from a lack of awareness that we provide grant funding," Landesman speculated.

Regional arts organizations may also need to improve their grantsmanship. The NEA accepts and gives money to only about one-third of the grant applications from the Valley, compared to a nationwide acceptance rate of about 55 percent, Landesman noted.

"They want to come here to listen and to learn," Kitchener said. "What an opportunity for us."