Modesto, Sonora arts groups land $825K

Two Modesto arts organizations and a Sonora theater are receiving a combined $825,000 from the James Irvine Foundation.

The Gallo Center for the Arts is getting $300,000, the Modesto Symphony Orchestra $250,000 and Sierra Repertory Theatre $275,000, the foundation announced Thursday.

The foundation gave $4.1 million to 15 "regional leading arts institutions" in the greater Central Valley after completing an extensive review process.

"The groups that were awarded funds are the best of the best," said John McGuirk, the foundation's arts program director in San Francisco.

The money will be distributed over three years and will be used to build bigger audiences, increase audience participation from diverse communities and develop financial sustainability. The funds cannot be used for construction projects.

The Gallo Center is using the money for three things:

To hire a director for an arts- education program, which will include bringing visiting artists into schools and community centers

To hire a consultant to help update its long-term business plan

To collaborate with the Modesto Symphony Orchestra on a marketing study. The study will determine residents' interests, how they spend their entertainment dollars and how they get their arts information.

Dave Pier, the Gallo Center's executive director, said it was an honor to be chosen as a grant recipient by such an important California foundation.

"It's a stamp of approval on what we're doing," he said. "We're envisioned to be a hub for the arts in this region in terms of their growth and development."

The downtown Modesto center, which opened last month, has two theaters, the 1,252-seat Rogers Theater and the 444-seat Foster Theater. Operating on a $6.5 million budget, the arts center is holding more than 100 programs this season, including touring Broadway shows, acrobatic groups, pianists, dancers and world music concerts. Pier is projecting attendance at 80,000 for the first year.

In addition to participating in the marketing study with the Gallo Center, the Modesto Symphony Orchestra will hire a community engagement director who will identify new constituents and deepen the group's relationship with existing patrons.

"It all comes down to expanding our audience base and expanding our symphony family," said Paul Jan Zdunek, the orchestra's president and chief executive officer.

Founded in 1931, the orchestra is Modesto's oldest and richest arts group, operating on a $2.2 million budget. It presents nearly two dozen concerts a year, has more than 1,400 subscribers and is projecting an attendance this season of 24,000.

While the orchestra has received bigger donations, the Ir-vine grant is a significant contribution, Zdunek said.

"The Irvine Foundation with this initiative is very visionary and allows us to grow our business," he said.

Sierra Repertory Theatre Managing Director Sara Jones said the Irvine grant is the largest contribution the company has received in its 28-year history.

"Being considered a regional asset, a leadership institution, those are things that are really important for the community to hear," she said.

Ted Russell, a senior program officer for the James Irvine Foundation, said he was impressed with Sierra Rep's goals.

"It's their vision to be the Ashland of the region," he said, referring to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival held in the city in southern Oregon.

Sierra Rep stages 10 or 11 musicals and plays a year in its East Sonora theater and Columbia's Fallon House Theatre, attracting 2,500 subscribers and an annual attendance of 62,000. It operates on a $1.7 million budget.

The group will use the grant to hire an additional fund-raising staff member, update computer equipment and bring in guest directors. The grant will allow the theater to do much-needed long-range planning, Jones said.

"A lot of time, behind the scenes, we're hanging by our fingernails," she said, explaining that all the focus is on getting a show up and running.

The Central Valley was tar- geted for grants because studies showed that it is an underserved region for philanthropy, ac- cording to a foundation news release. Many counties in the region received less than $10 per capita in annual giving by foundations, compared with $102 per capita across the state, the release said. Most of the foundation dollars are directed to the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

The James Irvine Foundation invited 30 arts groups from Sacramento to Bakersfield to apply for the grants. The process was competitive and involved lengthy self-evaluation by each organization.

"The main factors we were looking for were artistic leadership and community connectedness and that they were reflecting the region," Russell said.

This round of grants was the second phase of the James Irvine Foundation's Arts Regional Initiative. Last year, the foundation distributed grants to the Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Next year, it targets the Central Coast from Santa Cruz to Ventura counties.

California agricultural pioneer James Irvine established the Irvine Foundation in 1937 in San Francisco to serve the general welfare of California. To learn more, go to www.irvine.org.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at lmillegan@modbee.com or 578-2313.