IN THIS EPISODE

While many U.S. arts organizations are preparing to reopen their venues, organizations in Australia—where the virus has been effectively contained—began the reopening process as early as January. In this episode, Claire shares the lessons she’s learned from Arts Centre Melbourne’s reopening. She also explains why her team put most of their digital programming on hold and discusses the importance of acknowledging and supporting team members’ mental health challenges in the workplace.

 

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Take your tissues and be prepared to feel overwhelmed by how extraordinary it feels to come back into a live performance environment.

ABOUT CLAIRE

Claire Spencer is the CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne, a massive multi-disciplinary performing arts center in Melbourne, Australia, that stages over 4,000 performances and public events per year for an audience of 3 million annual visitors. Claire is largely credited with changing the course of Arts Centre Melbourne and has spearheaded the establishment of the Arts Wellbeing Collective (AWC) a mental health and wellbeing innovative collective set-up by the Arts Centre Melbourne in collaboration with the sector to better support the wellbeing of performing arts workers across the country. In January, 2020, Claire was recognized with an Order of Australia for services to the arts and community.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Erik Gensler: Claire, welcome to CI to Eye. I am so happy you're here.

Claire Spencer: Thanks Erik. It's so nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

Erik Gensler: I want to start off by talking about the magical land that you live in, where your government functionally managed a pandemic and you were able to reopen your arts venues in-person far before we were able to in the U.S. And many U.S. organizations are now looking towards reopening the summer or into the fall, and I'd love to start off by talking about what lessons you can share that you wish you knew to prepare for the opening of your venues. What can we expect?

Claire Spencer: What a great question. You're right. We're very lucky here in Australia. We had a tough year in 2020. We went through some pretty severe lockdowns. We had curfews and we weren't allowed to leave our homes, but we got to a point where we're now pretty much free of the virus in the community. So, it's still coming into the country through the hotel quarantine system, but it's been very well contained. So, it meant that we could start to reopen our venues back in January, and we did it progressively over a few months. So, we're now here … Where are we now? We're in the middle of May. We just opened our final venue last week. As far as looking back on it now, what were the things I wish I had known? It's hard (laughs).

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Claire Spencer: I think we were all so excited when we got the right permissions to be able to open. We recognized that it was going to be difficult and so, we thought, “Well, let's be sensible here. Let's open up slowly. Let's do it in a phased way and open pretty much one venue at a time,” is what we did. Even doing it that way, it was hard. It was hard on the team, particularly the frontline teams, introduction of very new audience engagement procedures—so, QR code scanning in, no paper tickets, no cash—so, lots of changes. Masks—we were all in masks at the beginning. And that dramatic change in the customer engagement experience was quite difficult for the team, and with hindsight, could we have done that differently? I'm not sure. You've got to open at some point, right? Or you go from being closed one day to open the next, but it was definitely tough. The other thing, I suppose, just to reflect on is the experience of artists coming back to the stage. Many of them haven't performed for a year and that's a long rest (laughs) and it was quite overwhelming for some of our artists coming back to perform. They managed it beautifully, with gorgeous vulnerability from the stage, and the audience was, you know, right behind them every step of the way. But, yeah, I guess that's one of the things to reflect on, is just, how do you bring your artists back in a way that they don't feel overwhelmed and, you know, you're not pushing them into too many shows too early and you're recognizing that they're not match-fit? And for the crews, it was the same. You know, physically, to be working in theater, as you know, is a very physical job and bringing the crews back and getting them fit again was something we had to really focus on. So, we had physios on site and that kind of thing, just to make sure that people were safe. I think the main thing for me was just to be prepared for the sort of overwhelming emotion of being back in a live performance environment. So, we opened our outdoor venue first. We are very lucky; we have a beautiful outdoor venue in Melbourne called the Sydney Myer Music Bowl, and we opened that first. And Erik, I wept my way through the first five performances there, just completely overwhelmed to be back in a live performance environment with other people after a year when we really weren't able to see anyone, let alone be in an audience environment. So, take your tissues. Be prepared to feel, sort of, quite overwhelmed by that, but it's an extraordinary … all of that aside, it is an extraordinary thing to come back into a live performance environment, and we're incredibly grateful that we are almost virus-free in the community and that we're able to do that.

Erik Gensler: Claire, welcome to CI to Eye. I am so happy you're here.

Claire Spencer: Thanks Erik. It's so nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

Erik Gensler: I want to start off by talking about the magical land that you live in, where your government functionally managed a pandemic and you were able to reopen your arts venues in-person far before we were able to in the U.S. And many U.S. organizations are now looking towards reopening the summer or into the fall, and I'd love to start off by talking about what lessons you can share that you wish you knew to prepare for the opening of your venues. What can we expect?

Claire Spencer: What a great question. You're right. We're very lucky here in Australia. We had a tough year in 2020. We went through some pretty severe lockdowns. We had curfews and we weren't allowed to leave our homes, but we got to a point where we're now pretty much free of the virus in the community. So, it's still coming into the country through the hotel quarantine system, but it's been very well contained. So, it meant that we could start to reopen our venues back in January, and we did it progressively over a few months. So, we're now here … Where are we now? We're in the middle of May. We just opened our final venue last week. As far as looking back on it now, what were the things I wish I had known? It's hard (laughs).

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Claire Spencer: I think we were all so excited when we got the right permissions to be able to open. We recognized that it was going to be difficult and so, we thought, “Well, let's be sensible here. Let's open up slowly. Let's do it in a phased way and open pretty much one venue at a time,” is what we did. Even doing it that way, it was hard. It was hard on the team, particularly the frontline teams, introduction of very new audience engagement procedures—so, QR code scanning in, no paper tickets, no cash—so, lots of changes. Masks—we were all in masks at the beginning. And that dramatic change in the customer engagement experience was quite difficult for the team, and with hindsight, could we have done that differently? I'm not sure. You've got to open at some point, right? Or you go from being closed one day to open the next, but it was definitely tough. The other thing, I suppose, just to reflect on is the experience of artists coming back to the stage. Many of them haven't performed for a year and that's a long rest (laughs) and it was quite overwhelming for some of our artists coming back to perform. They managed it beautifully, with gorgeous vulnerability from the stage, and the audience was, you know, right behind them every step of the way. But, yeah, I guess that's one of the things to reflect on, is just, how do you bring your artists back in a way that they don't feel overwhelmed and, you know, you're not pushing them into too many shows too early and you're recognizing that they're not match-fit? And for the crews, it was the same. You know, physically, to be working in theater, as you know, is a very physical job and bringing the crews back and getting them fit again was something we had to really focus on. So, we had physios on site and that kind of thing, just to make sure that people were safe. I think the main thing for me was just to be prepared for the sort of overwhelming emotion of being back in a live performance environment. So, we opened our outdoor venue first. We are very lucky; we have a beautiful outdoor venue in Melbourne called the Sydney Myer Music Bowl, and we opened that first. And Erik, I wept my way through the first five performances there, just completely overwhelmed to be back in a live performance environment with other people after a year when we really weren't able to see anyone, let alone be in an audience environment. So, take your tissues. Be prepared to feel, sort of, quite overwhelmed by that, but it's an extraordinary … all of that aside, it is an extraordinary thing to come back into a live performance environment, and we're incredibly grateful that we are almost virus-free in the community and that we're able to do that.

Erik Gensler: What was the demand like when you put shows back on sale?

Claire Spencer: We weren't sure what was going to happen. And we put those early shows on sale and you're like, “Oh, look, who knows.” We've tried to do the consumer confidence surveys and all of that, and we'd get mixed results, depending on what the status of the virus was, both in Australia and around the world at any given time. But we were thrilled, I have to say. The demand has been huge across all genres and we've had new audiences coming through. So, our outdoor venue, we've just finished analyzing the summer season for that, and we had 52% of our audiences there were new to Arts Centre Melbourne. So, it wasn't just our existing audiences that were coming back in numbers; it was also new audiences looking for, I guess, a live experience, an experience that you can have with other people, and just that opportunity to reconnect back into the community. So, we've been really, really thrilled. The forward sales are also strong. So, we thought, at first, “Oh, maybe, is this just, you know, the rash of opening up?” But we've been really encouraged by the audience response.”

Erik Gensler: Any indication around subscriptions or memberships and if the pandemic and the going from a lockdown situation to back to “a more normal life,” if there's any early indications of how that's going to impact behavior around subscriptions and memberships?

Claire Spencer: Our membership program is on hold at the moment. We've given people a year's grace because of being closed, so we haven't actually seen what that renewal rate is going to look like yet. From a subscription sales point of view, we have four subscription companies who work with us at Arts Centre Melbourne. Their sales are good. They've been encouraged with how audiences are coming back. They all changed the way that they sell subscription, so nobody went out with a full year of performances in the first instance. They all went out with shorter subscription seasons, and I think that really helped with audience confidence, to, “Oh, I’m not, I don't have to commit to a full year. I'll just do the first three shows and see how we go.” So, I think, actually, that was a really smart move on their part. And, yes, we've, as I said, we've been delighted with how many people are coming back.

Erik Gensler: I feel like I'm talking to like a clairvoyant or, like, someone in the future who (laughs)-

Claire Spencer: (Laughs)

Erik Gensler: … can tell me what's going to happen, and you're saying all the right things.

Claire Spencer: Yeah, look, it's … I think there's much cause for optimism.

Erik Gensler: Is there anything you did or wish you did to capture or bottle that optimism, in terms of how it's informed marketing or things you've seen on social media? There was lots of studies done during the pandemic that we certainly saw that the thing that would make people confident of going back to the arts was seeing other people enjoying the arts. So, have you seen evidence of that or have any examples like that?

Claire Spencer: Yeah, we absolutely switched our approach around marketing and publicity. So, our feedback from our audiences prior to reopening was that people would only come back if they felt it was safe. So, we had a whole campaign around coming back into the venues and what safety looks like, lots of signage. We had little tours of what your in-venue experience was going to be, which we videoed and put out on social, which went down really well. So, giving people that real sense of safety, and then it morphed very much into, “Come and enjoy this experience.” So, lots of audience shots, lots of videos—probably more video content than we've ever used, to be honest—to try and convey the atmosphere and sense of being with others. And we even went so far as to change all of the external marketing signage on our building to go from what had previously been very much, “Come and see this show on these dates with this company and this artist,” to images of people having an experience and having an experience safely and doing it with others. And I think it's important to think about what your audience is concerned about or excited about at any given moment and to respond to that. We also did a lot with the city. So, with the city of Melbourne, there was a lot of collaboration around the city traders, other cultural institutions about how we were going to invite people, really welcome and encourage people to come back into the city. So, there were whole-of-city campaigns that we were also part of. So, it was a real focus on that kind of collective experience. “Come back, have a moment when you can almost forget that we've all had this terrible, this terrible experience, this terrible collective experience, by gathering together.” So, we really wanted to focus on that in our marketing and comms. And, yeah, it seems to have worked.

Erik Gensler: I think something else on arts administrators’ minds now is, we’re now more than a year of transitioning to digital programming and moving forward, once you started live, it's not like you could all of a sudden double your staff. So, I'm curious how you thought about or are thinking about sustaining the digital programs that you've built, while also managing a staff that has to do their job around supporting in-person programming.

Claire Spencer: (Laughing) Yeah, it's such a good … it's such a great question. We're in transition at the moment. So, we're in a really interesting stage where we recognize we’re out of the immediate crisis. So, we're not in 2020 anymore, but we are transitioning to a future that looks very different after the pandemic. Digital content was a huge part of our crisis response to COVID. So, we didn't have a digital offering before COVID. We closed in the middle of March and by the middle of April, we had a digital offering and it was a godsend, actually, during closure because it meant we could keep artists employed, we could keep the crew employed and busy, and, of course, that we were pumping out great content to not just the people of Melbourne and Victoria, but internationally. And our digital program—we were actually thrilled—has had well over 20 million views now, which is astonishing. We're sort of … when you think about that number. However, coming back, we really had to make a choice as to whether our focus was going to be continued on digital content or whether we were going to throw ourselves fully back into live, and we realized that we actually couldn't do both. We weren't resourced to do both, and we didn't want to break a team that was already fragile and somewhat overwhelmed by everything that had happened in COVID. So, we have stepped back from the digital space at the moment. We're still doing a few things, much smaller-scale than what we were doing in closure, and we'll continue to take that stance, probably, until the end of this calendar year, just so that we've got the live experience settled, we've got the teams back up to speed, they're confident being back in the workplace, and then we'll relook at digital. It’s important to recognize, I think … Well, it was certainly important for our organization to recognize the human impact of the pandemic and that people have been through a lot and our teams are no different to that. So, throwing them back into a live environment whilst maintaining that level of digital content, we just didn't feel was right. But we have done … we haven't stopped completely. We've done some interesting partnerships. So, we've become the broadcast partner of one of our resident companies, the Melbourne Theatre Company. And so, we're now their partner in this space. So, we're capturing all of their content using our team and that's proving to be a very successful new audience engagement strategy for them. So, we haven't stopped completely, but we've really … we had to make that choice. There's been lots of choices since we've reopened, and that was one of them. We really wanted to reinvigorate that live experience and to do that in the best way that we possibly could.

Erik Gensler: One way to think about this last year is just a time to get off the hamster wheel of selling and marketing and producing, and to really think about some bigger-picture things, and I think I've talked to a lot of leaders who really took this time to reevaluate a lot of things and ask really difficult and big and important questions, and I'm curious if you felt like there are any specific changes you made based on this time that have really transformed how you operate, now that you're moving forward to live performance.

Claire Spencer: Yeah, we absolutely did. When we first closed in the middle of March, you know, none of us knew how long this pandemic was going to go on for, and we naively thought we might be closed for a month, you know, at worst. But when it got to about the middle of June and it was clear that this was going to go on for much, much longer, to be honest, we had a bit of an existential crisis because (laughs), you know, when you run a venue-based business, you're so busy all the time, as you say. You know, finding the shows, getting the audiences in, and we do 1,500 productions a year. It's intense, and there isn't really enough time to kind of stop and say, “Well, hang on a minute, what's this all about?” So, in a sort of a perverse way, COVID offered us the opportunity to just stop and reflect and say, “Well, what is an arts center? Why are we here? What’s the point?” And so, we spent time with our board just discussing where to go with that thought. We were in the middle of a massive crisis, like, I think, any arts organization anywhere in the world. Financial situation was dire. It was a really, very dark time, and I have great admiration for our boards and my team to actually have the courage to say, “Yes, it's hard, but we need to think about this now more than ever.” And, shortly after these conversations began, the Black Lives Matter movement rose up and we thought about that. And, like, we've got to … we're not clear on our role in this space. So, we commenced what we thought would be a sort of short, sharp consultation with many of our stakeholders, industry partners, our donors, members of our own team, members of the community. And we thought, as I said before, we thought it would be short and sharo, but we were still going sort of at the end of October, started these conversations. And they just took us to places and into territories that we haven't been for many, many years, probably since the Arts Centre was first conceived, actually, as to, “What is our core purpose?” And the direction that those conversations took were really interesting. Of course, you would expect there was an element of COVID recovery and, “What is our role as an arts Center to support not just our own organization, but the broader live performing arts sector in Victoria, the state where we are?” So, that was … We could have predicted that, but there was also a really rich seam of conversation around our role in the treatment of First Nations Australians and their place in society and how they are reflected on our stages, but also in our workforce. And then, coming quickly from that, deep reflections on our role with people of color. And Melbourne is a very, very multicultural community; that is not reflected in our team at the Arts Centre. It's reflected in part with the work we do on our stages, but not enough. And so, really deep reflections around that, reinforcement of the role that we play in mental health in the live performance sector and how important that role is—not just during COVID, but beyond that. So, it's really given us an opportunity to sort of stop, deeply reflect, and think about what are the meaningful steps that we take from here. And it's completely changed our way of thinking in many areas. We realized we have to make a much deeper effort around equity and inclusion. It needs to be core to who we are and what we do. And whilst it's always been important, it was never at the core, and now it is. And that feels … as a white woman of great privilege, that feels both right, but it also feels terrifying. And how we navigate that over the next few months and into the years ahead is going to be really, really testing and … but so important to get right. So, I think that's probably been the biggest shift for us, and without COVID, I'm not sure it would have been done in this way. I think we would have done something, but I don't think it would have been as deep as what we're now contemplating. So, in a kind of really perverse way, we're grateful to COVID for that.

Erik Gensler: Do you think the activism in the U.S. after the murder of George Floyd and the heightened attention on the racial inequities in our country reverberated to … I mean, it sounds like it reverberated to Australia.

Claire Spencer: It absolutely did. And at the time, we misread that, and I’m … we've acknowledged that, and if I had my time again, I wish we had done it differently. One interesting demonstration, I think, of the change that we've been through, personally and as an organization, over the course of the year is that we didn't give enough airtime around to our people to talk about George Floyd's death. It really impacted members of our team who are people of color and their allies, and whilst we spoke about it, we should have spent more time and created more space to be able to work that through, certainly, with members of our team and our community. But when the verdict from the trial was announced, we were all on the edge of our seats. We all sort of, you know … the first thing we did when we woke up in the morning was check the news to see if the verdict had come in. And I think that, to me, it was just a point of illustration about this journey that we've been on. We got there, but we got there late. I think the other thing with Australia is that we have a very unreconciled history with our First Nations Australians, our indigenous community here, and it brought into sharp focus a lot of those issues again, and we have a long way to go as a country and as a community. And we're very committed to playing our part in that, you know, as individuals, but also as a large employer. And we have an important role in the community where we have an opportunity to tell stories and to be a really meaningful and important part of that reconciliation. And what was really interesting, Erik, in our consultations, these community consultations that we did last year, the people of color who we spoke to—which there were many—their first priority was always First Nations reconciliation. So, this extraordinary generosity that, even though their position and their experiences aren't great, just absolute conviction that First Nations must come first. And that’s … that was a very profound thing to witness, actually, during these consultations, and it's given us enormous clarity that we, too, must focus on First Nations first. And that’s certainly the way that our transition plan is rolling out. Yeah, it was very humbling to be part of those conversations and to see that generosity of spirit and determination that there is real change in our community.

Erik Gensler: You talk about the mental health and the mental well-being of your staff and it rolls off your tongue, and it's really nice to hear a leader lead with that. And you founded the Arts Wellbeing Collective, which is a [sic] Arts Centre Melbourne initiative with your organizations to promote positive mental health and wellbeing in the performing arts. Curious to hear a bit more about this, why you started it, and what it offers.

Claire Spencer: So, fortunately, the Arts Wellbeing Collective was founded way before the pandemic. So, back in 2016 in Australia, there was a data set released from a university study of mental health of people who worked in the live performance sector, and the data told us what we already knew, is that this is an industry that has a lot of issues. We skew above the national averages for many mental illness indicators—depression, anxiety, suicide, suicide ideation—and we were deeply troubled by that. I hadn't been at the Arts Centre very long, so it was my first CEO job, and the data was pretty shocking. So, we thought, “Well, what are we doing as an employer?” And we looked at the, sort of, the support mechanisms that we had in place. You know, we had a hotline and employees could ring and that kind of thing. We felt our culture was pretty good, but we realized that it wasn't … Clearly, based on this data, it wasn't enough. And we had some experiences with our own team around the same time, as well, that really brought that data to front of mind. So, we thought, “Well, we'll find something that's better for our people. We'll find something that sort of speaks to their experiences working in this industry,” because, you know, just regular mental health advice is, you know, “Get early nights, sleep well, spend time with friends and family,” which don't always match the conditions of the industry that we work in. So, we thought, “Well, we'll find something that's more tailored to live performance.” So, we looked everywhere. We looked in Australia, we looked all around the world, and we couldn't find a program that met our needs. So (laughs), probably somewhat naively, we said, “Oh, well, we'll just create one. We'll just, we'll make one.”

Erik Gensler: Any great idea … (laughs) Yeah.

Claire Spencer: Oh, the naivety of arts administrators, I know. So, we started working with some psychologists, one of whom had also had a career as a professional performance artist, and we created a pilot program for what then became the Arts Wellbeing Collective and got some donor support to fund it through the first year. And we launched the program initially thinking, “Oh, well, this will just be for Arts Centre Melbourne.” That's what the original plan was. But when we looked at the first draft of the program, we were like, “This is really good. We should see if anyone else wants to be involved in this.” So, we offered it to our, firstly, to our resident companies and close colleagues in Melbourne. And we were surprised how quickly people came on board. So, we thought, “Well, let's open it up to the industry.” And we thought, you know, again, naively, in that first year, we'd get 10, maybe 15, partners because it was a pilot program and there was no proof of that it would have an impact. And we ended up that year with over 140 partners. And (laughing) we were like, “Okay.” So, yeah, we did a full evaluation of that first year, full independent evaluation, and the overwhelming feedback was that this is, yes, it's in its infancy, but it's having an impact. It's desperately needed, and it must continue. So, in 2018, we launched the Arts Wellbeing Collective as it is now, and we're now up to well over 400 partners all around Australia, internationally, as well. We cover tens of thousands of people who are in direct employment of the companies who are partners with us, but also many, many more tens of thousands of independent artists who who've signed up for the support services. So, what it offers is a suite of materials and resources that help build mental wellness in the live performance industry. So, we are not a crisis organization. We're not a treatment organization for mental illness. What we seek to do is to create mental wellness in both individuals, but also systemically, within arts organizations. And it's been an absolute godsend during the pandemic. I don't know what we would have done without it, and the thought of trying to create it during the pandemic is just mind-boggling. So, it's one of those things, you know, you look back and you think, “Well, thank God we made that decision when we did, because it meant we were ready, to some degree, to support people who work in live performance through the terrible awfulness that has been COVID-19.”

Erik Gensler: Do you think that just by having that program, it's … My father's a psychiatrist I grew up where mental health was talked about at the dinner table.

Claire Spencer: Mm (affirmative).

Erik Gensler: but I've come to learn that, in most families, (laughing) that is not something that people talk about and it still like shapes my view of the world. But, you know, in many places, it's not like that. And so, by virtue of having a program and something to look towards, do you think it helped people feel more comfortable to really talk about their true challenges, you know, before and through the pandemic, and just allowed … I mean, I think work is through this evolution where it was like, “No, bring your professional self to work,” but we know you can't bring your professional self to work; you have to bring your whole self. And our whole selves are messy. And by having a program that names that and owns that and discusses mental health, I imagine it's reshaped your culture.

Claire Spencer: It absolutely has, and one of our values at Art Centre Melbourne is “Care More,” and the Arts Wellbeing Collective sort of grew out of that value, but it's given it real substance. And, you know, we realized in the early years of the collective that there was so much stigma around mental health, and so we talk about it all the time. Some people maybe think we talk about it too much, but we … All through the pandemic, so much of our focus was on the impact that the pandemic could be having on people, what they might be experiencing. I talked at length about my own experience of working from home with three children and two dogs and the impact of the pandemic on my own mental health, and there's no shame in that. There's really no shame. And I think it's given us more confidence to bring our whole selves to work, to be honest, and to recognize that some days are just horrible and you feel like you just want to sit under the desk and hope it all goes away and so that you can reemerge, and other days are great. And what we found was that that level of openness meant that teams could support each other so much more. And, you know, when you're having a bad day, someone will sort of step in and lift you up and then vice versa. You know, and it created, I think, a really supportive environment to get people through those very difficult days, particularly when we're in the severest lockdown here in Melbourne. It's just now part of our culture. It's hard to remember a time when it wasn't, but it definitely wasn't always, and I think it's an interesting example of systemic change. So, you know, I think if we're to create really healthy workplaces, it's not just about having lots of people who are well; it's about having an environment where you can talk about how you're feeling, you can be authentic if you're not feeling great, and you've got supports there to help through what could be a difficult time. And I'm really proud of the team at Arts Centre Melbourne and what they've achieved with this, and the generosity and genuine care that the team have for each other, in a way that's now just part of who we are. And I think the focus on mental health has had a big part to play in that.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I mean, I think mental health is a big part of organizational health. And without acknowledging mental health, it's hard to really have honest conversations about organizational health. I'm a big fan of Patrick Lencioni, who is an organizational coach, and he talks in his book, The Advantage and says, “The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health, yet it is ignored by most leaders, even though it is simple, free and available to anyone who wants it.” And, basically he says, organizations not only have to be smart—which is, you know, thinking about strategy, marketing, fundraising, finance—but it also has to be healthy—where there's an environment with minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, low turnover. And I think so many of those things are tied to the mental health and happiness of the people in an organization. And so, I'm curious your thoughts on that and how you would categorize how you focus your time and your senior leaders’ time between smart and healthy.

Claire Spencer: Mm, wow. Gosh, how long have we got Erik?

Erik Gensler: (Laughs)

Claire Spencer: Look, I just think you can't underestimate it. And Arts Centre Melbourne hasn't got it all right. We're a big organization. We have a thousand people. We've just come off the back of a global pandemic.

Erik Gensler: (Laughs) Yeah.

Claire Spencer: We're not perfect, but I think there is a significant focus on culture that has been in place, now, since 2014. So, again, it's not something that we just started because of the pandemic and it comes in all different forms. It's how you treat people, how you engage with people, how you manage people who aren’t operating in line with your organizational values—and we've exited people for that, for that reason. And they're tough decisions. They're always tough decisions, but I think if you come across a toxic pocket in your organization, you've got to do something about it. As a leader, you can't look away from that because, ultimately, it does impact performance, but you also have a duty of care to the people who were working with you to create an environment that is healthy. So, obviously we have a business to run. So, we don't all sit round holding hands and reading books about culture. We run a hundred-million-dollar business. We've just come off the back of a pandemic. We've got a lot of rebuild to do and a lot of change to drive. That comes with a consequence on the people that work on the Arts Centre, Melbourne team. So, I think the spot is to find a way in which you can drive the change you need for your business to be sustainable and healthy—because clearly if you go out of business, that's in no one's interest—but to drive that change in a way that you recognize there's people involved here and people who are deeply committed to the organization that you're privileged enough to lead, and that change can be difficult and change can be unsettling. And at a time when we've been through so much change in the last 14 months—I mean, there's really been nothing that hasn't changed—to build more change on top of more change is hard, but to try and go back to how we were, knowing that that would make the business unsustainable, you can't do that, either. So, it's, how do you find a way to be compassionately direct with what needs to happen, to really highlight why the business needs to change, to be very transparent about that—and, you know, I was very transparent with the team last year about the extreme financial constraints that we were facing—and then, you know, engage your army of change to, to push forward through to a new future, but to do that in a way that really recognizes and acknowledges that it's hard, that it does have an impact on people, and to allow time and space for those conversations to happen. So, don't shy away from the change, but lead it in the best way that you can, remembering that at the heart of it is people.

Erik Gensler: What is a lesson you've recently learned about leadership that changed you or how you lead?

Claire Spencer: I think instinct, actually, which might seem a strange answer. But I think when I reflect back on 2020, and, particularly, in the early months of the pandemic, where there was, there was no information, there was no certainty, we had no precedents that we could draw on, we had no data (laughs), I realized that my instinct’s not bad. When that's all you've got to make a decision on, you sort of look to your core and call on all your values and all your experiences, and I guess that's what instinct is, isn't it? But I I've learned to trust it more than I probably ever have. I've learned to not completely eliminate, but I minimize … I've minimized the second-guessing of my own judgment. I was often my worst critic. So, I think I've weirdly, I've grown in confidence as a leader through the crisis because I'm trusting my own instincts and capabilities probably more than I ever have done.

Erik Gensler: And here you are at the other side.

Claire Spencer: Well, nearly! (Laughs)

Erik Gensler: Yeah. The times I've gotten in trouble or made major mistakes is when I try to quiet that instinct, that will always … if you just listen, if you just make enough space to listen … and I think it comes with age, too, where it's like, you can talk yourself out of it when you're younger, but the older you get, you can tell. And like, when I ignore that I get in trouble. And so, I think that's really … Thank you for sharing that. And I think in a way it's … instinct is one of the only true things we really had, right? You said with no data, we'd never been through it before, you had to trust your instinct and what a valuable lesson to learn coming out of it.

Claire Spencer: Yeah, no, absolutely, and I think probably the other thing—just reflecting—is self-compassion. I think, as leaders, sometimes, we can actually be really quite horrible to ourselves. And again, particularly in the early days of the crisis, I was raging against myself for the situation that we found ourselves in. So, you know, having to close the Art Centre, having to send the team home, I felt angry at myself that I should have been able to do something other than that. And it sounds ridiculous now, doesn't it, to sort of say that out loud? But at the time, I just, I just felt I should have been able to do more. And what I've realized through the year was that I needed to have more self-compassion and be kind to myself and to recognize that this is beyond any of us. None of us saw this coming. None of us could have prevented it and that you do the best that you can every day. You don't always get everything right. But you do your best and just be kinder to yourself. I'm hoping that's something I can hold onto, actually.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. It's such a great lesson. Buddhism some talks about, “You have to put your seatbelt on first, before you could take care of others,” which seems … it seems like, “Well, I'm a leader. I should be taking care of my team.” Well, you can't take care of others if you don't take care of yourself first. That’s a hard lesson.

Claire Spencer: Yeah, yeah. It is a hard lesson, I think. And it's instinctively, you know, you, of course, you've got to look after yourself otherwise, cause if you fall over, you're not going to be able to help anyone. But when you're right there in that moment, you often forget that.

Erik Gensler: What is something you know, about leading an organization or department that you know now that you wish you knew when you started your role?

Claire Spencer: That there is judgment in knowing when enough is enough, and I'll explain what I mean by that. I think, when I reflect back on my career, and particularly the role I'm in now, you sort of arrive and you're all enthusiastic and you see everything, you know? You've got eyes wide open and you see everything that needs to change or evolve or be kept or amplified. And there is an ambition in wanting to do everything and probably to do it too quickly. And I still struggle with that, and, organizationally, we still struggle with that as well. I think when you're in a business that's driven by people who are passionate, it can be really hard to get them to slow down. And we realized, probably mid-year last year, when the digital side of things was really ramping up and we were starting to do all our preparation and planning for reopening, that we were over-committed and our people were tired and they were working from home and there was enormous, sort of, emotional stress, as well. And there was just too much going on. So (laughs), you know, I probably quite naively said, “Well, we just need to do less, just do less. Let's aim for 75% so that we've got, you know, some capacity to take on the unexpected.” And, of course, you know, you get to 75% for a minute and then you're back up to a hundred before you know it. So, I think that judgment around knowing when ambition has reached its optimal point and then when the phrase, “No,” or, “Not now,” needs to be deployed is probably one of the things I still need to work really hard on as a leader. Don't push so hard that you start to break both yourself and the teams who are ambitious to deliver. So, sometimes that judgment in tempering others ambitions to a point where it's more manageable and healthy is a skill that, I think, as a leader, I'm still working on.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it's a tricky balance because no one wants to say no to you. No one wants to say “Slow down,” or “Let's not do this,” because they … I'm sure that that wouldn't feel good to them, but … and then, so you're in the position of balancing that and you're excited and you want to push the organization forward. So, I've never thought about that, but that's important.

Claire Spencer: I think, particularly coming out of the pandemic, when there's so much need, there's so much appetite in the community for what we offer, we've got this big transformation agenda around First Nations and racial equity … There is so much that we want to do, but we have to find a way to delivering change in a sustainable way. If we get to that, that's nirvana, for us, if we can get there.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and real change is slow and it's not it's … it takes time and it's incremental. So, we've come to the end of our interview. It went so fast. And the last question that we ask is called the “CI to Eye moment,” and the question is, if you could broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and board of thousands of arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them right now?

Claire Spencer: Coming out of the pandemic is bumpy. You'll get through it if you look after each other, if you keep an eye on the impact you're having on your community, the impact you want to have on your community. But my main advice is, just be kind to each other. It's hard coming out. It is bumpy. Just hang on, you'll get through it, but be kind.

Erik Gensler: Claire, thank you so much.

Claire Spencer: Thank you, Erik. It's been such a pleasure.