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‘In the black’ Accounting for museums

Perhaps you’re a mid or later-career accountant who would like to work in the arts? The trick in this situation is to be as well rounded as possible. Illustration: Jacqui Triggs.

Johanna Leggatt, Getting creative – accounting careers in the arts, In The Black, 1 August 2019

You don’t need to love sculpture or be an opera buff to have an accounting career in the arts, but you probably will develop a passion for the industry.

At a glance

  • Accountants may be the only people with a commercial skillset in an arts organisation.
  • Artists tend to value recognition by their peers over financial success, and may need an accountant to look out for their interests.
  • While a love of the arts is ideal, broad accounting knowledge and experience, and good communication skills are the must-haves.

Accountants are often stereotyped as practical rather than artistic types, more at home with spreadsheets and software than a night at the opera.

However, according to Geoff Willis FCPA, not only is this a long-standing myth, but the art and accounting worlds are much more complementary than most people think.

Geoff Willis.

Geoff Willis.

Hobart-based Willis, who was previously the CEO of Hydro Tasmania and managing director of the paper division of Amcor, was exposed to the arts only later in life through his work.

“The companies I worked in sponsored many arts institutions, and that is how my love of art and music grew,” says Willis.

He is now chair of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and was formerly chair of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

“My accounting background was fundamental to me joining those boards,” he says.

Arts accountants work one-on-one with artists and performers, or they can act as the in-house financial controller of a government or not-for-profit arts group.

“In those small organisations, the accountant may be the only commercially skilled person in the organisation,” Willis says, “so there is that organisational need to implant commercial knowledge and realities, otherwise arts organisations won’t thrive.”

Why artists need accountants

The CFO of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Kym Partington FCPA, agrees that it’s a myth that art and sound financial management are mutually exclusive.

Kym Partington.

Kym Partington.

“I’ve actually found it to be quite the opposite,” says Partington, who has more than 150,000 works of art, valued at A$6 billion, under her financial stewardship. “Arts institutions know that getting the finances right is the cornerstone to the gallery or art institution’s success.”

The best relationships between artists and accountants, according to Willis, are built on a kind of tension between the commercial imperative and the artistic motivation.

“You really want to get a healthy tension between artistic pursuits and the commercial reality,” he says.

“I use the word ‘tension’ because if you get it right, it’s a healthy relationship: you don’t have the dominance of the commercial element saying it’s too expensive, nor do you have a dominant artistic belief that you can do anything, so it’s a really important role.”

Do you have to love the arts?

How important is a love of the arts, to make a career in this field?

“It certainly helps if you are a younger accountant, in particular, to have an interest in the arts,” Willis says. “It’s been a feature of the arts organisations that I have been involved with that the finance people would be regular attendees of the concerts and the activities at the museum.”

Needless to say, an appreciation for art can grow alongside the job. Just ask Partington who, before joining the NGA, held CFO roles in mainstream government agencies.

“When I came to the interview, I did mention that I knew nothing about art,“ says Partington, laughing. “The director said to me, ‘That is OK, Kym, I have plenty of artists in the gallery. What I need is someone with a good business head who is ready to do the best work of their life.’

“Since then, it has been amazing and it [the arts world] really does get under your skin. Now, I do find myself visiting other art galleries and asking, ‘Is that a Hockney?’”

Having an interest in art or an art qualification might make up for a lack of real-world accounting experience owing to youth, Partington notes, “but I don’t think [a love of art] is essential, as it is really about running a successful business and knowing how to build capacity,” she says.

Understanding artists

While an artistic flair or interest is not necessary, great communication skills are.

Tom Lowenstein.

Tom Lowenstein.

In fact, Tom Lowenstein FCPA, whose firm Lowensteins has carved out a hugely successful niche managing the affairs of some of Australia’s pre-eminent visual artists, thinks that understanding artists is crucial to working with them.

“There are shysters in the business world, and artists need to be aware of them and not get caught up in accepting a bad deal,” he says. “Artists often need someone like an accountant to look out for them and their careers, and care about them as a person.”

Lowenstein often asks his artist clients where they wish to be in five years’ time.

“Their usual answer would be that they hope to be recognised as an artist by their peers,” he notes. “The question of money is very rarely discussed.”

Lowenstein learned very quickly that although artists want to have a comfortable lifestyle, they’re largely motivated by their art, which can be hard for accountants and business people to understand.

“While material comfort is nice, if you asked artists to choose between being wealthy or being recognised, even in a small retrospective, then most would choose being recognised,” he says. “The emphasis is more on the achievement and their ability to compare themselves proudly with their peers.“

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