Arts stand to benefit from grant program. Challenge III goal: $30 million

The National Endowment for the Arts is planting $9 million in seed money in the hope of harvesting more than $30 million in matching grants for 25 projects across the United States. The grants, part of a new Challenge III program, will help stage new plays, mount new operas, encourage women composers, bring media arts to classrooms, nurture environmental art, and give a boost to ballet. The awards, ranging from $50,000 to $1 million, go to 14 states and the District of Columbia, with the majority (eight) going to the State of New York.

In announcing Challenge III, NEA president Frank Hodsoll said its goal was ``to initiate major projects ... to help launch creative new activities with potential for long-term benefit to the arts.'' The challenge grants stipulate a minimum match of at least $3 in new or increased donations for every NEA dollar received over the next four years.

Challenge I and II were NEA grants over the last decade designed to provide money to arts organizations to increase long-term financial stability, often in the form of endowments. Over its first five years, Challenge I, which contained $109 million in seed money, reaped $883 million in matching funds. Challenge II, which is still in progress, sowed $111 million and has so far resulted in $361 million in matching grants. Jeanne Hodges, director of NEA's challenge grant program, says the new $9 million Challenge III is more like a pilot program for arts projects at this point but is eventually expected to bring in as significant matching grants as its predecessors did.

The largest grant, $1 million, goes to Center Stage Associates, Baltimore, where it will be used to stop the talent drain into other media by making theater salaries more competitive. New play and film series, an expanded season, a theatrical forum, and an endowment are also planned.

The widest-ranging grant goes to the New York Foundation for the Arts, which will distribute $800,000 in seven states that contain 40 percent of the artistic population of the US. The states - Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio - will spend it on both visual and performing-arts projects.

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