How much does an accountant earn in the arts sector, and how good do your maths skills really need to be? Mahmood Reza answers all in this comprehensive guide.
I was initially interested in the world of business and finance when I was at secondary school, getting into a range of activities including running a mini catering operation, selling lost property and managing a few local bands. I was not the most studious person at school - my first rubbish attempt at A-Levels are testimony to that - but a strong desire to leave home and become independent forced me to get my head down, and at the tender age of 19 I headed off to De Montfort University to study a combined degree in Law, Accountancy and Maths.
I completed my degree, but still had no idea what a future career would look like. I took a year out, did some part time teaching and volunteering and then did a PGCE at The University of London Institute of Education. I taught full time for three years, before deciding a career change was needed. I then went into industry as a divisional management accountant for over five years.
By that time I had qualified as an accountant and picked up a few more bits of paper along the way, but I decided another career change was needed. I left and started my own accounting and training firm from my back bedroom in 1995 and, despite some challenges along the way, the business is still going. I’ve managed to move out of my back bedroom and have a good team of staff and associates. I wanted to bring what knowledge and expertise I had not just on the commercial sector but on the charitable and arts sector too.
I have been fortunate to be involved with a number of international consultancy and training projects, be a charity trustee, help train and develop future accounting professionals, mentor a wide variety of individuals, do some occasional writing, and also make a living.
Is finance for you?
The classic accountant’s answer to any question is “it depends”, and that answer applies here. Finance work is varied and so are the people that work in it. It suits and reflects a myriad of personalities, from the quiet and reserved to the more vocal.
The three main areas of finance involve book keeping (an underrated skill), production of financial information and use of that financial information. To me it’s a fantastic industry, requiring focus, communication skills, analytical detail, time management and a sense of humour.
How do I get started?
In my opinion a good finance person has practical experience underpinned by a formal framework, such as a book keeping and/or accounting qualification. I have met many excellent finance individuals who are unqualified or not formally trained, and I have met many individuals who have the qualifications but no experience – and they have been poor.
A good route and footprint into the sector is to look for part-time work, or volunteer your time as a bookkeeper/treasurer for an arts organisation or similar (it’s how I started), and understand how financial transactions are recorded. As a note of reference, the foundations of finance are based on a system called double-entry - the principles first established in 1492 - and are still fundamentally unchanged in the twenty-first century.
What are my career prospects?
There are an incredible number of different roles in finance within the creative sectors and because the sector tends to be under-resourced in this area, compared to the private sector, there are greater opportunities to develop your skills and contribute to the organisation.
Salaries vary significantly depending on experience level, location and the scale of organisation you are working in. As a guide, bookkeepers and assistant accountants’ salaries tend to range from £15,000 - £19,000, and experienced and qualified finance directors might earn in excess of £50,000. Many arts organisations tend to employ finance individuals on a part-time basis, and there are a great deal of self-employed finance people working within the arts sector.
There is progression (maybe not as rapid and available as in the private sector) and today’s finance person needs to be a more active business partner within the organisation. A good finance person is highly respected and valued within the arts sector.
Finance is a very transferrable skill. Although there are specific differences between the arts and private sector, there is a large amount of commonality – moving across sectors is very possible.
I would recommend a career in Finance. The skills and disciplines are immensely practical and transferrable, and it can lead to a fulfilling and rewarding future with many opportunities.
Mahmood Reza is a business advisor, practioner and educator.
Mahmood Reza is currently working on a project to help future finance professionals and organisations develop their finance understanding. For more information visit www.knowledgegrab.com.