SACRAMENTO — An obscure state board awarded six- and seven-figure grants Wednesday to dozens of museums and cultural groups, including several that legislators long have championed.
The California Cultural and Historical Endowment Board gave out more than $35 million for projects that included rebuilding a military fort at an Indian reservation outside Fresno, restoring murals at the Santa Monica Public Library and remodeling a downtown Los Angeles building to house the Latino Theater Company.
The theater company received the single largest grant at $4 million.
"Fantastic," said Jose Luis Valenzuela of the theater company. "We deserve it. We need it."
In a process that ended at 3 a.m. Wednesday, the new California Cultural and Historical Endowment Board allocated money for 33 proposals, culled from 276 groups that sought more than $400 million. The amounts are tentative. The board must pare $2 million from the $37-million total.
The money comes from Proposition 40, a bond measure approved by voters in 2000. The bulk of the $2.6-billion proceeds was spent on parks acquisition and rehabilitation.
But the bond included $276 million for "acquisition, development and preservation of culturally and/or historically significant properties, structures and artifacts."
Half of that money went to projects specified by the bond. The panel is doling out the rest. It plans to make more awards in two cycles starting next year.
The 10-member board includes people active in arts and politics. The governor appoints three members, and the Senate and Assembly appoint two each. The chairwoman is State Librarian Susan Hildreth.
In 2002, then-Senate Leader John Burton pushed the Legislature to establish the board as a way to avoid an overly political process in the dispersion of the money.
But lawmakers and board members got involved, adding 20 projects to a list of 37 that had been nominated for funding by the board's paid staff. The board funded 10 of the 20 added projects, giving them a combined $9.3 million.
Projects nominated by the staff accounted for the rest, including some that received the largest grants.
The Golden State Museum in Sacramento was among the notable recipients Wednesday, receiving $375,000 to help it create a California Women's History Museum. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, has pushed for a women's museum.
Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown appeared before the board seeking $5 million to rehabilitate a Fox movie theater in his city's downtown district. The board gave $2.89 million to the project, and another $2.89 million to the Oakland Museum of California.
Other recipients included:
* The Autry Center for the American West, which received $936,000 to help preserve artifacts at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. The center sought $5 million.
* The Angel Island immigration station in San Francisco Bay, called the Ellis Island for Asian immigrants. It sought $5 million and received $3 million, the second-largest grant.
* The Angels Flight Foundation, which received the $996,000 it requested to rebuild the Bunker Hill railway.
* The Table Mountain Rancheria, owners of a casino outside Fresno, received $617,000 to reconstruct buildings from an old Army fort.
The Latino Theater Company, whose board of directors includes Los Angeles labor leader Miguel Contreras and entertainment industry figures, is of particular interest to Assembly Democratic leaders. An aide to Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) was in the audience throughout the process.
Assembly leaders also pushed for funding of the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation, which received $2.5 million to continue building a memorial to the founder of the United Farm Workers in the Kern County town of Keene. And they had championed the Capital Unity Coalition, which received $2.2 million for a multicultural museum near the state Capitol.
Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat and former Assembly Budget Committee chairman, appeared before the board and requested $5 million for the Capital Unity project.
"We worked it, but in all the legitimate ways," Steinberg said, referring to calls and conversations about the proposals with the governor's office and board members. "We had hoped for $5 million. But the glass is more than half-full."
Steinberg said lawmakers considered using the legislative budget process to allocate money for the projects. But they decided to send their requests to the nascent cultural board instead.
By permitting board members and lawmakers to add projects, the board turned the process political, said representatives of some groups, particularly those who lost out.
In a letter protesting that projects in his Sierra foothills district received no money, Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) said he was concerned that there appeared to have been "alternative routes for consideration that were not made public."
"It appears some projects were selected for consideration through a separate board and legislative process that was not open to all applicants," Leslie wrote.
In an interview, Hildreth said the board tried hard to fund the "best of the best."
She added: "It is not unreasonable that priorities of board members and our legislators were addressed."
Assemblymen Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood) and Hector de la Torre (D-South Gate) were nonvoting board members and offered their suggestions on the board's process and funding issues -- many of which were followed.
De la Torre called the process "very fair."