UT’s Francie Ostrower Snags $3.5 Million to Study Arts Engagement


From 2002-12, attendance at arts organizations declined from 39 percent to 33 percent. In a Sept. 26, 2013 article in The New York Times, Patricia Cohen wrote that the downward slope was continuing, especially in the theater. Last week, UT professor Francie Ostrower became the recipient of a $3.5 million Wallace Foundation grant—the largest sponsored research grant received by a professor in the College of Fine Arts in the history of the university—to study how arts organizations are combating that trend.

The six-year study will examine how 26 fine arts organizations are engaging and sustaining new audiences while retaining existing ones in an effort to provide lessons to U.S.-based arts organizations. Ostrower spoke with the Alcalde about the grant, problems that arts organizations face, and straddling the worlds of fine arts and public policy.

The Alcalde: What’s your background in the arts and public policy?

Francie Ostrower: I’m a joint appointment—at the LBJ School and in the College of Fine Arts—I live in multiple places as a professor. We have a program that is jointly programmed by the two colleges (Portfolio in Arts & Cultural Management & Entrepreneurship), and I think there is a lot of overlap between the areas of arts and policy and management. The idea is, [if] you’re interested in a career in the arts, to get a larger sense of the policy frameworks and organizational structures in which the arts are carried out, and also give people some very practical skills.

It sounds like the idea here is to create more well-rounded students.

And give people options.

What’s the idea behind the grant?

The purpose of this grant, of which I am the principal investigator, is to look at what’s being done by these 26 performing arts organizations that were awarded grants by the Wallace Foundation to expand their audiences. It’s to really look at how the organizations engage new audiences while holding on to their current ones in a sustainable way and whether and how this contributes to their financial health. I use the word “sustainability” very deliberately because the intent of the initiative as well as the study is to understand not just how to get people in the door once but how to engage with them on more of an ongoing basis.

It’s to make the other grants more efficient?

Arts and cultural organizations may use this to help inform their own initiatives. What we’re going to do, through a massive data collection effort, is interviews with staff and board, we’re going to collect quantitative and qualitative data. What were the challenges? What were the opportunities? Did they achieve what they hoped to do? What can we pull out from this that we can share with the field as a whole? Engaging audiences is one of the major challenges facing major arts and cultural organizations today.

Why is that? Has it gotten worse in recent years?

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found a decline in attendance between 2002-12 from 39 to 33 percent. We’ve seen a decline in attendance of plays, attendance of dance, classical music, opera, and jazz. This is something organizations are quite acutely aware of. We don’t know for sure [why], but one of the things this study can hope to do at the organizational level is try and understand why some of these audiences weren’t engaging with the organizations and what can be done to help turn that around. Sometimes there can be a feeling that, “This organization isn’t a place for me.” That’s one thing that organizations are starting to think about. This research builds on some of the findings from earlier research about barriers.

It’s not just about the programming, it’s also about the space.

That’s one of the issues. The others, maybe: “We’ve been doing this kind of programming, but we want to do something new. How do we get you, the audience, to come with us?” That’s another kind of issue. We just got the grant so we haven’t really gotten out there to do the research. One strategy [organizations have used] is creating new works that may be appealing to kinds of audiences they are trying to attract. Some of them are taking the work that they’re doing and staging works in other kinds of venues in the community that maybe people do feel comfortable going to. Some of them are having events where people in the audience can come together with one another and with the artists and the organization. Different strategies may be called for.

Why is this research important?

I think, and there’s abundant research to show this, that the arts are major, major pillars of strong communities and vehicles of civic engagement. That’s why this is so important. It’s connected to civic engagement. It’s connected to communities that we want to live in.

This research sounds like an extension of your work at UT.

I feel so passionately about [this]. One of the things I’m so looking forward to learning about through this project is it combines so many different areas that arts organizations work in. Some of them are thinking about the art they are presenting, but they’re also thinking about social media [and] where they’re performing. The organizational part, the artistic part, the community engagement part are going on in various ways at the same time.

Photo by Andrew Jackson via Flickr.


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