The Arizona Commission on the Arts announced last week that it was awarding $1.8 million in grants to arts groups statewide.

Close to $500,000 of that goes to Tucson-area groups, including the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, which got a $60,000 windfall. The TSO is one of five groups in the state to receive the hefty amount, and the only one in Tucson. Statewide, the grant amounts ranged from $1,000 to $60,000.

This is just the first round of grants the ACA will be giving this fiscal year; it expects a total of $2.2 million in grants will be awarded to arts groups by year's end next June. That's a substantial increase over the $1.6 million awarded in the last fiscal year.

The boost is a result of a $1 million one-time allocation that the commission received from the state when the budget was approved in mid-June. The money comes from Arizona's "rainy day fund."

About 70 percent of that money was included to the commission's first round of grants for this year.

The remaining 30 percent will be distributed in August through two new ACA grant programs.

This year, the commission changed its criteria for grants, which resulted in a much more detailed application process.

"In the past, grant amounts were based on size," said Robert Booker, executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts."If you were big, that influenced the size of the grant."

This year, he said, the grant awards had three set criteria: fiscal ingenuity, broad participation from the state's residents and programs that reflected Arizona's diversity.

The commission also looked at an organization's finances.

"What we wanted to know was if you are in trouble, in a hole, how are you going to get out of that hole," added Booker.

"Organizations that could speak to that were funded. Those that didn't have plans, or clear movement in the three areas, did not receive a large grant. We wanted to reward and support those organizations that are hitting on those cylinders."

"The changes at the Arizona Commission on the Arts mirror those of private foundations," said Michael Luria, executive director of the Children's Museum Tucson, which was awarded a $22,000 grant.

"There's a lot of competition for money, and funders are becoming much more diligent. They want to make sure the organizations are doing what they say they are doing. "

The new process, however, was not an easy one.

"About a week before the grants were due, most of the people in the arts were pulling hairs out," said Michael Fenlason, Tucson Museum of Arts' grants manager. TMA received a $36,000 grant.

"You can't just do your mission statement and go," he said. "We had to explain what we are doing for our community."

The museum's collaborations with other arts groups and its education programs - for instance, TMA subsidizes the cost of buses to bring students to the museum, and goes into the schools to teach art - were what bumped up TMA's award, said Fenlason.

Andrew Birgensmith, TSO's executive director, said TSO's community outreach was key to its $60,000 grant award, as well.

"Right now, TSO's true passion is reaching out to the community and partnering," he said. TSO regularly collaborates with such groups as the TMA and the Fox Tucson Theatre.

The Loft Cinema won a $36,000 grant.

"I think one of the things that really positioned us well is we are open 365 days a year," said Peggy Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit movie theater.

"We have so many programs and serve a broad spectrum of the community. … Our increased focus on education speaks to them (the ACA)," as does the Loft's working with other organizations, she said.

Grant money was awarded to many organizations for specific items, such as a festival or a school education program. But most of the grants are for general operating funds, which means the organizations can put the money where it is most needed.

For a full list of the Arizona Commission on the Arts grants awards, read the online version of this article at

On StarNet: View this story online to find a list of all the organizations and schools awarded grants by the Arizona Commission on the Arts at

"You can't just do your mission statement and go. We had to explain what we are doing for our community."

Michael Fenlason

Tucson Museum of Arts' grants manager

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at or 573-4128.