Susan Conroy likes to create light bulb moments.
Local Government town planners, transport and water management planners often find solutions in unlikely places, as does Ms Conroy in her pioneering role as a cultural planner.
Some years ago she left nursing to became NSW’s first cultural planner, and later the ACT’s first cultural planner. “I used to do individual health care, now it is about the health of communities, so it is bigger,” she says.
These days Ms Conroy is at the helm of peak arts and cultural agency, Southern Tablelands Arts, which covers seven Local Government areas, including Goulburn and Queanbeyan. One of Ms Conroy’s latest projects is working with a dementia patient, an elderly woman in Goulburn, who can dance the salsa and who is teaching carers and fellow patients how to step, count, turn and throw their hips about.
Forget the dementia, she is integral in getting old people dancing for wellbeing. “I don’t know what her background is, but she apparently knows how to dance and communicate that to other people,” says Ms Conroy. “All the science tells us now three things are important about maintaining good mental health, so you are the best you can be as you age. Exercise, diet and social connections.”
Ms Conroy is also working with dance school principal Liz Barling and two of her dance teachers on Dance for Parkinson’s Australia classes, based on an overseas model for anyone with Parkinsons disease. “We are widening that to dance for wellbeing, as part of thinking about creative ageing and it is another way of bringing creativity into a different field of thinking,” says Ms Conroy. Her aim is to keep people well, socially connected and respected in their community longer than many others might imagine.
The work of a cultural planner spans a much wider field, one well worth reflecting on as Goulburn reinvigorates its main street, upgrades social infrastructure like walking trails and playgrounds and begins building a new performing arts centre in the heart of the heritage city.
Since becoming Southern Tablelands Arts executive director in 2014, Ms Conroy has doubled annual funding to about $300,000 through partnerships that are improving people’s lives. Ms Conroy connects people to one another well before they see the possibilities she does in new networks.
How does she do it? “I just draw a long bow,” she says. “I like to find ways to help artists connect with communities and for the lightbulbs to be turning on for every body.’’
Artists working with new and old lighting technologies helped Southern Tablelands Arts create a festival, IlluminARTe, that proposed projecting digital images on to landmark old buildings in Picton.
While it captured people’s imagination, some were skeptical, says Ms Conroy.
“Many people in council thought we would have a fizzer. We might get 1000 people. Having been involved in big events, I knew we would get between 15,000 to 20,000 people at that event,” she says. The festival began in 2015.
“Last year we had 30,000 plus. From doubting Thomases everywhere, it was ‘this is just fabulous but lets just do it every two years’. But it is such a winner for council, it just grows and gets better and better ever year,” Ms Conroy says.