Date posted: 08/03/2022 8 min read

Claire Spencer AM ACA: Art with heart

Claire Spencer AM ACA steered Arts Centre Melbourne through two immensely tough years, putting into practice everything she’s learned about mental health.

In Brief

  • Claire Spencer AM ACA created the Arts Wellbeing Collective to tackle the issue of anxiety and depression among arts workers.
  • During Melbourne’s COVID lockdowns, she launched a digital program so artists could stream their performances into people’s homes.
  • Team wellbeing is a primary focus of her leadership.

By Johanna Leggatt

When Claire Spencer AM CA began her role as CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne in late 2014, she was aware that depression and anxiety was an ongoing issue among arts workers.

However, two developments convinced her she needed to do more: a report released in 2016 by Victoria University that showed arts workers presented above the national averages for anxiety, depression and suicide, and, tragically, the suicide of a young Arts Centre employee.

“It was a great shock to us all,” Spencer says. “I didn’t know him well but many people did, and no-one really saw it coming.”

(It wasn’t the first such tragedy in Spencer’s sphere. A performer had suicided when she was chief operating officer at the Sydney Opera House.)

Spencer said the young man’s death imbued her with a deep sense of responsibility towards her Arts Centre team, and she decided more needed to be done to support arts workers. “We had an employee assistance program (EAP) and a work culture that was pretty good. But clearly that wasn’t enough,” she says.

Enter the Arts Wellbeing Collective, launched in 2017, which provides resources and preventative care for those working in the arts. The Collective was initially offered to the Arts Centre’s resident companies, but quickly ballooned to its current level of 400-plus arts partners due to high demand.

The Collective helps arts organisations establish the right frameworks to protect arts workers, while also tooling workers with the techniques and support to ensure good mental health.

“We didn’t want to move to a crisis support model; we were trying to create something that would stop people getting to that crisis point,” says Spencer, adding ‒ unsurprisingly ‒ that the Collective is more in demand than ever.

“So many times throughout the pandemic I thought, ‘Thank God we have got the Arts Wellbeing Collective’.”

COVID’s toll on mental health Arts Centre Melbourne is home to The Australian Ballet, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Theatre Company and Opera Australia. As its boss, Spencer spent the past two years in “survival mode” as the city of Melbourne seesawed in and out of lockdowns for much of 2020 and 2021.

She felt some relief that she’d placed such a high priority on mental health initiatives since the early days of her appointment. Nevertheless, she noticed the psychological strain of the lockdowns on the arts sector and staff almost immediately.

“When we closed the first time, in March 2020, we thought we were closing for a month,” she says. “And it ended up being a lot longer than that.”

While there have been many times in her career when she’s appreciated being a chartered accountant, there were none quite like this.

“Honestly, I was very glad I was able to understand cash flow and insolvency as an accountant because we had to shore up the company very quickly,” says Spencer, who grew up in London and is accredited through the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).

Arts Centre Melbourne generates up to 80% of its own revenue, so when live performances were shut down on 16 March 2020, those funds were “turned off overnight like a tap”.

“Like most arts organisations, we didn’t have a vast depth of reserves to draw on so we were very quickly negotiating for emergency support,” she says. “We weren’t eligible for the [Australian government’s] JobKeeper program, so we were very fortunate to be able to work with the state government to secure finances in those very early days.”

Claire Spencer AM ACA: Art with heartPicture: Claire Spencer AM ACA.

Sense of purpose

Spencer made a commitment to her team that she’d be upfront with them. “I told them, ‘I’m not going to bullsh-t you. If I don’t have an answer I will be honest with you’. As soon as I knew anything, I’d let the team know, even if it was hard news to deliver. That is still the way we communicate today.”

She also focused on maintaining a sense of purpose among the arts community. In early 2020, Spencer and her team launched a digital program, Together with You, to stream performances and arts content into people’s homes during lockdowns. The program has received some 20 million engagements over the past two years.

“People don’t work in live performance because they want to make millions,” she says. “There’s a sense of purpose and calling, and when people are separated from that it’s very distressing.”

The CEO and her team also resolved to make care and wellbeing their number one focus with staff.

“We came out of March 2020 with a decision, which was formally endorsed by our board, that we’d lead with care and with wellbeing as our primary focus,” she says. “And I’m not convinced that would have happened if we [at the Arts Centre] hadn’t been talking about mental health since 2015.”

“We came out of March 2020 with a decision, which was formally endorsed by our board, that we’d lead with care and with wellbeing as our primary focus.”
Claire Spencer AM ACA

The recovery process

Spencer’s considerable achievements in supporting the mental health of arts workers haven’t gone unnoticed. For the past two years she has been nominated for UNSW’s Australian Mental Health Prize, which recognises those who have made an outstanding contribution to the field.

“It has been very humbling because there are people who have dedicated their lives to working solely in the field of mental health, so you feel a little bit unworthy,” she says.

But it does prove you don’t need to be an expert to make inroads. “Even if you’re not a professor [in the field], you can still make a difference,” she says.

Spencer hopes her company’s mental health focus will have effects well beyond the workplace. “When we started the Collective, we were aware that if we could shift someone’s experience at work, they would take that experience home to their family, and their family would benefit, and they could then take that experience into their community and their community would benefit.

You can never underestimate the ripple effect.” As for the future, the State Theatre at the Arts Centre Melbourne will be closed for more than two years from 2024 for a renovation that will improve acoustics and backstage infrastructure, while adding new bars and restaurants. But life and vitality are returning to Spencer’s sector once more.

“We see ourselves as a gathering place where people can come and deeply experience the performing arts, they can hear stories, they can understand different perspectives, they can be entertained,” she says.

“For me, it goes back to purpose and I am, shamelessly, a purpose-driven CEO, and to know that your purpose can ripple out is very gratifying and very gratifying for the team at the Arts Centre as well.”

How to create better mental health in business

Claire Spencer AM ACA shares her approach for promoting good mental health, developed from more than two decades in leadership roles.

1. Listen to your people:

“Particularly coming out of the pandemic, ask what their personal experience has been. How do they feel coming back into the workplace? Has their view on their work or the organisation changed? And really listen to what they say.”

2. Don’t delegate the process:

“Don’t give the job to a consultant or to HR: actually spend the time with your people listening to their stories.”

3. Talk about your own struggle:

“There is so much stigma about mental health and that breeds shame. For example, I was very open with my team through the pandemic about how hard it was.”

4. Don’t be worried about showing your vulnerability:

“Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness and leaders often feel they can’t be vulnerable because people will lose confidence in them, but in my experience, it is the complete opposite. You become more human.”

5. Be prepared to take on a transformation:

“Remember, when you invest in your employees’ wellbeing, you will get a return on that investment. You’ll get it through engagement, and you’ll get it through people being willing to go that extra mile. But don’t do it for that reason. Be confident that there is a return you may not be able to put a dollar figure on, but it’s there.”

Claire Spencer AM CA at a glance

CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne since late 2014.

Started her career in auditing with Ernst & Young in London.

Has a master’s degree in theology from the University of Cambridge, which Spencer says helped honed her skill at analysing large amounts of information.

Spent 11 years in executive roles at Sydney Opera House.

Steered the Arts Centre Melbourne through a restructure and a cultural change in events programming.

Helped establish the Australian Music Vault, the Arts Wellbeing Collective, and the Asia Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts (Asia TOPA) in collaboration with more than 30 Victorian organisations.

In 2020, was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her services to the arts in Australia.

Member of Chief Executive Women.

Board member of The Pinnacle Foundation, which provides scholarships and mentoring support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex students.

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