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Interview with Adrian Trickey

My first interview is with Adrian Trickey, who I really enjoyed interviewing. It’s fascinating to hear first-hand how finance and administration in the arts sector has developed professionally since the 1950s. Adrian enjoyed an enviable career as a senior manager for several high profile arts organisations including the Welsh Arts Council, the Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera, the San Francisco Opera and the Edinburgh Festival.

What roles did you do throughout your career?

I’ve worked in Finance but with an IT perspective and I’ve worked as a Finance Director and as an independent consultant. I’ve always worked in the public sector.

How did you start out?

I went to Exeter University to study history and politics; it was unusual for someone from my background to go to University and I didn’t have a plan about what I would do after my degree.

I worked out I wanted to work in public service and I got a job with Derbyshire County Council on a public finance training programme which included the IMTA accountancy qualification (Institute of Municipal Treasurers and Accountants), the precursor to CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance
Accountants).

I got the qualification but I did very little accountancy as I got involved with IT and programming. Derbyshire County Council had an IBM 360 series machine that took up half a floor of the building and I assisted with various projects such as road traffic flows and child health systems.

I moved into the National Health System in 1974 and got a job developing medical information systems in Glamorgan, South Wales working mostly in Whitchurch Hospital for 3 years.

While living in South Wales there were many opportunities to get involved in arts organisations; which I did for enjoyment.

An opportunity came up with the Welsh Arts Council as Director of Finance and Administration; where I stayed for 3 years. I was working on behalf of the Arts Council with all the arts organisations in Wales. It was a great opportunity to see how different organisations worked and the problems they faced. It was very interesting and challenging as arts organisations are always working on the edge of what is financially feasible. The challenge is in finding solutions to these problems.

I then got a call from the Brian McMaster at Welsh National Opera (Managing Director WNO 1976 – 1991) who was looking for a new Finance Director. I worked at WNO for 10 yrs. It was (and still is) one of the most exciting and innovative arts organisations in the world. It’s where I learned by experience
and from colleagues what management was all about.

After leaving the WNO I had the opportunity to go to work as Finance Director for the San Francisco Opera, the second biggest opera company in the United States of America. They produce a big autumn season every year. It was great to see how things are done differently in the USA.

On returning to the UK I worked as an independent consultant. There was a lot of work as the National Lottery had been introduced which heralded a new grant era generating work both in terms of helping arts organisations put applications together and helping the Arts Council Lottery Fund to assess
applications.

I then got a call from Scottish ballet asking if I’d act as interim Chief Executive to nurse Scottish Ballet and Opera through a transition phase that was meant to end in the two organisations merging, largely for financial reasons.

As it turned out the two organisations didn’t merge. Scottish Opera had significant financial problems and I helped the organisation navigate its way through to a sustainable solution.

I then worked for the Edinburgh Festival for about 6 years; which was very different to working for an organisation that creates its own productions throughout the year. At certain times of the year the staff would grow exponentially and at other times there was a skeleton staff planning for the
future festivals.

I’m now happily retired!

What role do you think Finance has in arts organisations?

It has a special role. It does depend on what sort of arts organisation you are involved in. When considering charity arts organisations, the main distinguishing feature is the purpose of the company isn’t making money. The organisation needs to be financially successful but satisfying shareholders and paying dividends isn’t the end of it. Financial objectives are secondary
and supportive of artistic objectives.

Finance staff have to be tactful communicators both to ensure artistic direction realise that financial success is a stepping stone to artistic success and they need to be able to understand the language of the art they are working with so they can contribute to the day to day challenges and be taken seriously.

Has that changed at all during your working life?

It probably has.

The first contact I had with finance in arts organisations was with the Welsh Arts Council. In those days (possibly because there weren’t many large arts organisations in Wales), finance wasn’t always well organised and run by finance professionals. If they were not fortunate enough to have a good bookkeeper or if the Chief Executive wasn’t financially aware or the board
was hands off, the organisation might not have had any idea of their financial position until too late!

Nowadays artistic directors are much more aware of the need to have a good finance person in their team. If they can’t afford a full timer they will need access to the expertise periodically.

Before my time in the business, arts administrators were largely impresarios who worked on the basis that if productions were great people came to see them and if they didn’t, they should be supported anyway because the art was worthy. There was very little market analysis.

I think the infrastructure around finance within the arts has developed; in the 1970s Tony Field, Finance Director of the Arts Council of Great Britain and City University introduced an excellent training scheme. It produced some individuals who helped develop UK arts organisations; it especially helped
with budgeting as well as recording and reporting. It also had a big impact on marketing of the arts; it introduced the concept of the market and target market.

In addition, Jack Phipps, Touring Director for the Arts Council helped to formalise national touring by setting up relationships between touring arts organisations and theatres that were often profit making businesses and expected arts organisations to deliver certain returns.

In addition, over the last 10 years stakeholders and supporters are no longer “buying into optimism” without strings in terms of budgeting and funding. Historically arts organisations could get blue chip commercial rate bank overdrafts (always with the unwritten understanding that the Arts Council wouldn’t let an arts organisation go under so banks were happy). That’s not
happening anymore.

In addition, the Arts Council was willing to make advances at year end to arts organisations. It was a sensible solution to unspent Arts Council reserves and that suited some organisations with long lead times on productions such as opera companies that would keep income and expenditure on the balance sheet until the year of the performance but would be incurring expenditure in previous years and advances would solve a cash flow problem. But it was dangerous if the organisation came to rely on this to finance structural deficits.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a career in arts management today; how should they go about making it happen?

It’s very difficult to get into arts administration at graduate level unless you have a genuine love of the arts; I got in without an arts management qualification but I think I was lucky although I didn’t move into the arts sector until I was in my 30s.

My advice would be to get in at whatever level, in whatever post you can, and take any opportunity available. Take all the training and learning opportunities, both formal and informal. In terms of the artistic side, you’ll be surrounded by talented people and role models will be easy to find.

However, if you’re interested in finance, you’re likely to be one of the few people with finance skills within the organisation so it’ll be difficult to find role models. My advice would be to set up links and network with other arts organisations. If you’re in a funded organisation, the funding organisation will have links.

Get the qualification.

What was the biggest day to day challenge you faced in the various roles you’ve held?

The arts conundrum; you can never take your mind off the contradiction between different needs of the organisation and the short, medium and long term goals. Such as when deciding on investing in a project, there’s always the dilemma about where the money should be taken from, e.g. should the
organisation spend £10k on an educational programme that might have long term aims, but where should the funding be taken from; possibly the productions that may meet shorter term aims?

Arts organisations are different to mainstream charities as they earn a significant portion of their charitable income from trading; from selling tickets to performances. In that way they have much in common with businesses such as commercial promoters in the entertainment industry. In addition, they
have to reach as wide an audience as possible while putting on high quality, ground breaking work. You have to capitalise on all opportunities to generate income but at the same time make the work accessible to those who don’t have a lot of money to spare.

What was been the biggest challenge in your career?

It’s difficult to decide on one; in one sense going to San Francisco as I was taking all the experience from the UK and I had to apply that to a different culture.

Going to Scottish Opera and finding out that they were going to run out of money within a few weeks was a challenge. No one knew the extent of the difficulties. There had been no Finance Director in position for 9 months and there was no qualified finance person in the organisation and no cash flow projection had been done for a year. We successfully negotiated help from the Scottish Arts Council and the Scottish government. Unfortunately, the funding for the future wasn’t going to increase and over the longer term the organisation had to cut back and reduce its scope. But it’s still there!

While I was at WNO I was the lead person for annual union negotiations. For the most part these were done in a good spirit and differences were usually reconciled happily. On one occasion, negotiations broke down and threatened to derail the imminent Ring Cycle performances including guest artists at the Royal Opera House, a production we had been preparing for four years. We got there! But it was scary and involved probably the most unpleasant day of my working life.

What’s your favourite business book and why?

I don’t read “business books”; perhaps I have been unlucky but I find they’re always badly written.

Although I enjoy reading about business such as John Lanchester’s Whoops!: Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay. Fascinating, and it gave me the pleasure of thinking I would never have got into that fix. Perhaps.

Did you have and how did you maintain work life balance?

Mostly yes; although not so much when I was younger. When I worked for Derbyshire County Council I was always at the office and sometimes worked through the night. There was pressure to work at night as the computer was busy in the day and for development work only night time was available.

At a more senior level there’s an understanding that you will have demands on you but you’re at a level to exert control and have balance.

What are the key challenges you think people have in working in Britain today?

Finding work; if you have a job and you like it you’re in an extraordinary position today.

If you have family or money behind you, you can take on internships etc. so you can get your foot in the door and pursue a career in the area you want. If you need a job to provide money to live on you’re in a very difficult position when starting out.

What’s been the best piece of business / career advice you’ve ever been given?

I had a very charismatic and inspiring boss; Alan Snaith, the Medical Officer of Health at Derbyshire County Council who was the first scientist I worked with. He was trying to introduce an evidence-based community health programme. To many old-style managers, it was a new idea that evidence and science
could be used to find solutions for the real world.

I leant from him never to trust intuition alone; even if you think you are always right, check the facts, evidence and have tools to evaluate.

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