Two Fresno arts groups get federal economic stimulus money

WASHINGTON — A massive economic stimulus plan has now trickled down to Fresno's famed Radio Bilingue and a traditional arts organization that serves the San Joaquin Valley.

Conservative critics still question the stimulus plan's wisdom. But for Radio Bilingue and the Fresno-based Alliance for California Traditional Arts, new National Endowment for the Arts stimulus grants announced this week come just in time.

"Because of the economy, we've had a really hard time raising funds," Hugo Morales, Radio Bilingue's co-founder and chief executive officer, said Thursday. "We have used up all of our reserves in recent months in order to avoid layoffs."

Morales added that an annual mariachi festival sponsored in Fresno earlier this year lost money, further aggravating Radio Bilingue's financial straits.

Radio Bilingue is receiving a $25,000 grant as part of the stimulus program. The Alliance for California Traditional Arts, which also maintains an office in San Francisco, is receiving a $50,000 federal grant. They are the only two arts-related organizations between Modesto and Bakersfield to receive a direct economic stimulus grant.

The local arts grants, in turn, are only a tiny portion of the overall $787 billion economic stimulus package that's also funding Madera County bridge improvements, a San Luis National Wildlife Refuge cultural resources survey and road resurfacing at Lemoore Naval Air Station, among dozens of other Valley projects.

At the insistence of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the economic stimulus package included $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. The funding boost was a remarkable accomplishment for an agency that once faced calls for its outright elimination.

"We should take out these little, tiny, porky items that will provide questionable stimulative effects," Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said during Senate debate.

Tennessee Republican Rep. Phil Roe added during House debate that "whatever one believes about spending taxpayer dollars on the arts ... it should not be done when the country is facing a trillion dollar deficit."

Nonetheless, the stimulus package approved without Republican support in the House included money for the federal arts agency. Subsequently, more than 2,400 arts organizations applied for the direct grants. Each had to show how the new federal funds would help retain jobs.

"We were impressed by the number of applications," NEA spokeswoman Victoria Hutter said Thursday.

Radio Bilingue has previously won many grants and awards since being founded in 1976. The non-profit, Spanish-language radio network now has about 60 affiliates nationwide.

Morales said the new grant will help pay for broadcaster Filemon Lopez, who anchors a Radio Bilingue show focusing on music from the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The Alliance for California Traditional Arts supports folk culture, assisting individual artists and groups like the Fresno-based Hmong Cultural Heritage Center and the Selma-based Los Paisanos dance ensemble. The alliance's executive director, Amy Kitchener, said in April that the organization sought funds to pay for an associate director.

In addition to the individual grants, the federal agency is providing funds to state and regional arts agencies for further distribution. The California Arts Council is receiving $502,400, which is considerably more than any other state.

Pelosi's hometown of San Francisco, too, is receiving a hefty share of the state's total. Federal arts funds provided under the stimulus bill are flowing to more than three dozen San Francisco organizations, from the foolsFURY Theater Company to Architecture for Humanity.