Creative accounting: Are bean counters killing the arts?

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“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”, state Shakespeare’s immortal words from Hamlet about the dangers of credit, but what about being an accountant?

While the bard went to his grave without revealing his opinion on the profession, one who has more familiarity than most with Shakespeare’s work took to the stage last week to decry what he feels is the growing influence of accountants in the arts.

Former director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Dominic Dromgoole stated that he believes the increasing influence of accountants in the theatre world should be curbed to restore creativity and risk-taking.

Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to promote the Globe’s Hamlet world tour, Dromgoole stated that he believes the demand for financial expertise on the boards of arts organisations has fermented a culture of “fear and risk aversion”, and is stifling artistic freedom, risk-taking and creativity.

“Institutionally I think we have a problem that we have possibly over-stacked our governance areas with people from the world of finance,” said Dromgoole, “and I think a lot of those people from the world of finance are from the world of accountancy.

“They are entirely honourable and entirely nice people, but I think from the moment they begin working on things they’re always overly calculating risk and overly worried about danger.

Dromgoole stated that he is worried about the accountant’s need to “100% future-proof” productions was damaging, and fostering a negative approach to new ideas in the UK.

“It’s great to have the balance and no-one wants arts organisations to be feckless or irresponsible or lost,” he continued. “There was a corrective impulse about 30, 40 years ago, I think, to bring in a degree more fiscal responsibility.

It’s not just accountants that can ruin things

Down in the stalls (otherwise known as the AccountingWEB Any Answers forums), Dromgoole’s soliloquy garnered a mixed reaction.

AccountingWEB member gildera felt that in the current economic climate, organisations cannot afford to gamble on ventures that could leave a massive financial hole, and then assume the Arts Council will bail them out.

“I'd rather have a diverse network of arts provision that considers itself slightly risk averse, than no arts provision whatsoever because it has gambled its future away throwing money at projects no-one will pay to see.”

Along with outing himself as a performance poet, AccountingWEB regular stepurhan felt the director had a “partial point”.

“It is possible to be too risk-averse, and interesting art can come out of oddball ideas,” said stepurhan, “but if "taking a risk" could cause a venue to close, then that is a risk too far. The grim reality is that places like this need money to run. If they can't afford to take the hit from a particular show not doing well with audiences, they can't do it. Would he prefer future artists have [fewer] venues available to show their work?”

Sarah Douglas rounded the conversation off with a topical point: “my biggest beef is how the big comedians are ruining the Edinburgh festival,” she said, “I don’t like how it is taking over the weird and wonderful plays and shows that used to be Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, each year I hope it was just a blip but it keeps happening. So it is not just accountants that can ruin things.

'Accountants are trained to back winners'

One man well-qualified to comment on this perceived clash of cultures is someone who has lived it. AccountingWEB columnist-in-residence Philip Fisher spent 20 years as a human capital partner at various leading firms of accountants and is also London editor of the excellent British Theatre Guide.

According to Fisher, there will inevitably be a clash between creative people and accountants working in the arts.

“On the one hand, artists take risks accepting that in some cases they will fail,” said Fisher. “On the other, accountants are trained to back winners. Going a step further, the concept of prudence means that any uncertainty is likely to scupper a project that may succeed.

“In reality, almost no theatrical production in the West End, on Broadway and in smaller theatres is likely to recoup its investment. The business only works because angels (investors) accept the likelihood that they will lose their money but are happy to do so because they are supporting the arts and might just hit the jackpot. After all, once every few years something like Les Misèrables or Phantom of the Opera comes along and makes millions.

“Therefore, it pains me to say it but if we want a lively, vibrant theatre in the United Kingdom, the best recipe might be to temper the activities of the bean counters. Some theatres and producers will go bust as a result, but entertainment wise, we will all be better off.”

While passion runs high on both sides of the argument, ultimately only time will tell if the increasing influence of accountants will mean audiences are doomed to repeat viewings of the Lion King and Les Misèrables because they bring in the box office booty, or if Dromgoole’s pronouncements were just a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

About Tom Herbert

Tom is acting editor at AccountingWEB, responsible for all editorial content on the site. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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25th Aug 2017 10:25

Great article Tom. I have mixed views on this, and all points are valid. My view is there needs to be a happy mix otherwise there will be no money left.

Interesting I am a big fan of BBC 3 and have enjoyed some of the drama,s, films and documentary like for example murdered by my boyfriend sad topic but fantastic acting. BBC 3 appears on top of popular programmes regularly.

Some of the programmes due to watching figures are then shown on BBC 1. So the argument could also be had that comedy, dramas can also be destroyed by big money because the rawness has been sucked out of the production, some of the best films in the world have been made on a low budget.

Yes, there has to be a happy medium.

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By DJKL
to sarah douglas
26th Aug 2017 12:34

Agreed, in say films large budgets often appear to result in productions with spectacular effects but very poor plots and little if any character development. When one walks out of the cinema with little or no connection and empathy with the main characters, the words of the Pistols resonates, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

Not that I play them these days, my children having outgrown my involvement, but the same criticism can be aimed at some computer games, the early Nintendo Mario and Yoshi games needed/engendered involvement from the player to carry the games, say Marrio 3 or Yoshi's Island, even Mario64, but as the processing power increased the charm of the games, to me,has diminished.

The perfect example is the Stars Wars films, IV,V and VI capture my attention when I watch, with I,II & III I struggle to be invested in the characters, frankly I care little for the fate of the characters in the earlier (later) films.

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