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The art of the public servant

Claire Spencer, CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne, tells Xenia Taliotis why she is driven by a passion to support the cultural community she has adopted as her own, and about art’s vital role in society

Asked to describe herself, Claire Spencer thinks for a moment before replying: “I’m an old-fashioned public servant. What most drives and satisfies me is contributing to society and making things better.” There’s so much more she could have chosen to say. She could have gone for the headline, CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne; or homed in on her work for Chief Executive Women (CEW) to ensure equal opportunities for women at all levels of business; or ignored her professional life completely and defined herself, first and foremost, as a mother of three. Yet she chooses public servant.

“Yes, I’ll stick with that. It covers what I do, and what’s important to me. I think we all have a responsibility to help our communities, and I’m glad that my job enables me to do that. I’m proud to serve the arts, Melbourne, and the public.” Spencer has been CEO of Australia’s largest and busiest performing arts venue since 2014.

It meant leaving a job she loved, as CFO and COO at Sydney Opera House, and moving her family to a new city. “It wasn’t a job I could fly into on a Monday morning and out of on a Friday afternoon,” she says. “I had to immerse myself in Melbourne completely – not only in its arts and culture, but also in its fabric. I had to be a resident, a citizen, so that I could fully understand what fellow Melburnians expected of their arts centre.”

When she started, the organisation was on pretty shaky ground: it had needed a A$10m bail-out from the state government and the combined effort of two interim CEOs to recover from a A$7m loss in 2012. But it’s a different story now. The 2017/18 annual report cites an A$8m (13%) increase in trading revenues compared to the previous year, and compound annual growth of 7% in the five years since Spencer took over. In addition, the number of events held is up by 32%, commercially generated revenue has increased by 15% and total attendance by 27%. How has Spencer managed to turn around the venue’s fortunes?

“Arts Centre Melbourne employs close to 1,000 people, and it’s their commitment and passion as much as anything that is driving our success. On a strategic level, though, I treated it much as I would any other business that needed to grow, and that involved creative thinking and risk-taking. Risk is essential to growth – without it things stagnate – but I’m an accountant, so I calculated those risks and managed them to propel the business forward.”

She has steered the organisation through a major restructure and a cultural change in its events programming, introducing fresh initiatives and collaborations and breathing new life into the venue. Among these are Asia TOPA, an event-packed festival celebrating Australia’s connection to Asia; the Australian Music Vault, a free permanent exhibition showcasing the country’s contemporary music story, which has drawn more than 850,000 visitors since opening in December 2017; a season of the Pop-up Globe, the world’s first full-scale working replica of Shakespeare’s reconstructed London theatre; and the Arts Wellbeing Collective, of which Spencer is particularly proud. “We wanted to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues within the arts industry, so led a year-long pilot with 138 organisations across Victoria,” she says.

“It’s an ongoing problem, but we learned some valuable lessons from the pilot, which we’re now hoping to consolidate in the next phases of the Arts Wellbeing Collective.”

She’s passionate, too, about the role the arts can play in changing and enhancing lives – her face lights up as she warms to the topic – and is working on more ways to make culture a universally accessible pastime. “I view it as tantamount to a right, actually,” she says.

“I’ve seen the effect live theatre can have on children who’ve never been before, and want to find ways of bringing that experience to more people. The arts are so important to society – they shouldn’t be seen as an indulgence. “Being part of an audience, sharing a performance, coming together to have a collective experience of a show benefits people. It creates connectivity – connecting artists to the audience, and theatre-goers to each other – and that sense of cohesion and belonging, of participating in a civic activity, is of enormous value.”

In addition to providing subsidised or complimentary tickets and transport for regional schools, relaxed performances for those with autism, and free and discounted tickets to more than 23,000 schools and community groups, Arts Centre Melbourne is also working with companies that develop young people and create opportunities for those who’ve been marginalised by society, those who live in poverty or have a disability.

But there is always more that could be done. Spencer says the biggest challenge of her job is deciding what to say no to. “I have such a talented, ambitious team and there are so many opportunities I’d like to fund, but we all live in challenging financial times. Our budget is limited and the number of projects we’d like to support limitless – because artistic invention and expression have no limits – so we have to be ruthless in our focus. We have to squeeze the last drop of value out of everything we do. We try not to curtail or constrain creativity, but we do have to balance it. That’s the difference between success and failure.”

It’s clear that she doesn’t allow her accountant’s head to be ruled by her art-lover’s heart. “It’s because I love the arts and my job so much that I listen to my head, and it’s because Arts Centre Melbourne needed an accountant, a sensible, fiscal decision-maker, that I got the position.” So how did a solidly middle-class English girl from Teddington, south-west London, who read theology at the University of Cambridge, end up as CEO of an Australian arts centre? “The answer’s accountancy,” she says.

“My career path is actually one of the things I mention when I give talks to teenagers – especially when I’m talking to girls – because so many youngsters dismiss the profession. I tell them that while becoming an accountant hadn’t been my plan, it proved to be the best investment I could have made in myself, and one that has rewarded me in all sorts of ways. I want to show people that it’s a varied and multi-faceted qualification that can take you anywhere and into an area that you really love and where you can really make a difference.”

Spencer was the first person in her family to go to university, her two older sisters having followed their father into banking, and says, half laughing, that sibling rivalry was a strong spur to succeed – first in gaining her father’s attention and then to achieve. “I’m totally busted with that one. My sisters and I have always been very close, but as the youngest, I felt I had something to prove.”

She chose theology because she knew she’d enjoy it and because she didn’t have a career in mind; three years later she still didn’t know what she wanted to do, but was open-minded enough to say yes when Ernst & Young knocked on her door. “I accepted because it was an opportunity to learn something new, and I’ve always loved giving my brain something different to think about. I was intrigued by it, and could see that, unlike a lot of other professions, qualifying as an ACA would give me any number of goals to aim for. I knew it could take me abroad, for instance, and give me access to whatever sector I chose to work in.”

It also showed her that making sense of numbers came easily to her, that she enjoyed the precision and tidiness of a balance sheet and that working with people from different backgrounds really suited her. “My cohorts at Ernst & Young were medieval historians, geographers, linguists, arts graduates, mathematicians, school leavers: we’d all walked down such different paths to get there, and I loved that – I loved being exposed to their knowledge and perspectives.”

Clients, too, were inspirational – the nuns at St Saviour’s Priory particularly so. “I don’t have a faith, but I found the fact that they did tremendously moving. They showed me there was another way to live life. I would often arrive with such a busy head, completely wired by the noise and commotion of London, but once inside St Saviour’s the stress would evaporate.”

Spencer left Ernst & Young soon after qualifying, put off by the lack of female role models and partners at the time, and went into telecoms at a hugely exciting time for that industry. She did a year as an internal auditor at Cable & Wireless, before taking a business manager role at Optus. Quite audaciously, she asked for an overseas posting, and ended up in Sydney in a job that she now admits she lacked the emotional resilience for.

“Optus was being absorbed into SingTel, the culture was changing and I had a huge amount to deal with. So I left. I felt quite burned out. I needed some time away from business, and allowed myself to do quite random things, including training as a remedial massage therapist. It was a nice time.” Spencer was offered a short-term contract in the finance team at Sydney Opera House and felt instantly at home. She was there for nearly 12 years working her way through various roles, including chief financial officer and finally chief operating officer.

Had the Arts Centre Melbourne position not come up, she’s sure she’d never have left the Opera House. Away from work, Spencer gives her time and expertise to issues she cares deeply about. She is a board director of The Pinnacle Foundation, which helps young LGBT+ people reach their potential, providing them with scholarships and mentoring, and a member of CEW.

“If you’ve been afforded privileges and opportunities in your life, I think you have a responsibility to give back. There are very many causes I care about, and I want to do my best for them.” Spencer wants everyone to have same opportunities, regardless of their gender or sexuality. It’s shameful, she says, that there is still such inequality, that there are industries where white, straight men vastly outnumber all other groups.

“Inequality is a problem that we’ve not yet managed to solve. Organisations have to build it into their corporate identity and processes because it’s actually quite difficult to redress the balance once your board or management team have been employed.” What does she do in her time off? “This is going to sound like a busman’s holiday, but I like to go to the theatre. If I’ve had a difficult day, then I’ll go to see a musical or a comedy. I can’t sing or dance but I absolutely love watching those who can. And I like that the fact that I have a job that provides an environment in which others can be creative.”

Originally published in Economia on 4 April 2019.