Kara Swisher

Two small Washington arts organizations, the Washington Project for the Arts and DC Wheel Productions, received a total of $300,000 in challenge grants from the National Endowment for the Arts yesterday.

The awards were among the $27.5 million for 87 cultural institutions announced nationwide by NEA Chairman Frank Hodsoll in the 10th round of yearly challenges given out by the NEA. Arts groups receiving grants are required to raise at least three times the amount of matching funds in three years to get federal dollars.

In addition, five area groups were given funds totaling $2,125,000. In Virginia they include a grant of $600,000 for the public broadcasting station WETA-TV of Arlington and $750,000 for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In Maryland, all awards went to Baltimore-based organizations, including: Maryland Art Place, $100,000; Baltimore Opera Company, $175,000; and Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, $500,000.

Awards given to the small-scale D.C. organizations were a surprise here because in the past the NEA has usually handed out monies to larger arts institutions, like the grants of $1 million given to the Kennedy Center in 1985 and $900,000 for the National Symphony Orchestra in 1984. But earlier this year, Jeanne Hodges, director of the grant program, indicated that more money would go to smaller groups. "We want to be able to reach smaller but equally important artists," said Hodges. "We're going to become more like venture capitalists."

That sentiment was appreciated by local winners. "We're not the Kennedy Center, so we didn't expect this national recognition," said a jubilant Carla Perlo, artistic director of DC Wheels. "For us, it means survival." DC Wheels, an umbrella arts organization founded by Perlo and her husband Steve Bloom, has been through many crises recently. Its central company, the Dance Place, which presents nontraditional dance, was forced to leave its home in Adams-Morgan in 1985 because of high rent. It is now renovating a new space near Catholic University. Besides that undertaking, Perlo says, the funds will be used for a three-year commissioning project for two local and two outside choreographers and a festival called "New Dance USA" planned for 1990