Dionysus director David Caffery and media and events strategist Michael Liu met just as organicallyas their business partnership came about, and at the root of everything they strive for at the cultural development organisation, it's an underlying love for the arts and the city of Canberra that has keptthe two determined to put the capital on the map as one of the best places to visit, play and live.
The two met about eight years ago at ANU when Caffery started the university's party and music society uniVibes. As a fresh first year Liu suggested that the society would benefit from adding a live element, which saw the start of a series of improvisation concerts across campus and the city at venues including Hippo, Transit and Knightsbridge.
"As we both professionalised we kept working together in different capacities, specifically in NewActon," Caffery says.
"Out of the inability to start a live music venue and while I was still working at Molonglo Group as cultural coordinator, the idea of starting an events-based company that covers cultural advisory, events and research into cultural development came about."
Caffery explains that Dionysus provides great flexibility to be a creative events team while also providing developers with quality activations, and artists with unique platforms to explore different components of our culture.
"That's where the concept of Dionysus came from in its current literation, so we set up this office with the support of Molonglo Group and here we are – running an arts festival and talking to different developers and government about other major festivals and a series of cultural events," he says.
"We don't do one-off events, we find that there's much more value within the community with events that re-occur. Building on them and those experiences enables artists to engage with the audience on a regular long-term basis.
"We're about putting events on well and nurturing them so that they come out of their infancy and become something that is respected, not only in the city that we live in but in the world."
The Dionysus office and event space is fittingly located in NewActon's Nishi building. Its fitout is riddled with authentic vintage furniture and wares, and was styled by none other than Netti Vonthehoff of April's Caravan, who Caffery says put her absolute heart and soul in to the space.
"She really treats all her projects like an art form, and just like a painted canvas she painted this amazing space for us," he says.
"I just can't work in environments that aren't inspiring. Netti had a wonderful vision and created an environment which enables us to keep the creativity and conversations flowing, but at the same time provides our own space and divisions."
The goal for Dionysus is to focus on making Canberra's reputation stronger in the cultural sphere which will also grow the greater confidence of Canberra.
"It's important for Canberra to have a unique cultural identity so that we want to live here, and so that we feel at home," Caffery explains.
"That idea of home is really important for our culture. If you feel homeless in a philosophical sense then you won't feel like you have belonging and the meaning that culture can bring.
"Western society has this pervasive sense of homelessness. We may have a physical house but it's not necessarily a home. It's the same for a city, we need to feel like we fit, that the city reflects us and that we are proud of it.
So where does one start to assess what a city like Canberra is lacking in terms of urban renewal and cultural activation? Liu says the biggest factor is not replicating what Canberra already has but instead finding something unique for the city and starting to talk about those ideas more seriously.
"That's where Art, Not Apart came from – it's not just an art festival, it's an interactive platform that brings lots of different artists together, specifically Canberran artists, in way that is unlike any other part of the country," he says.
"It requires a different frame of thinking or us to always go back to a clean drawing board and just starting again. We never try and copy anything, that wouldn't be fun for anyone and it would be boring.
"Canberra is also great because of our places. NewActon is a very special place and so is Westside, and now we are working with a number of organisations to make them even better."
"We create artistic projects that we firmly believe are meaningful for the city. We don't do events for profiteering; it's simply not what Dionysus does. We do events that we put all our passion into and manage to get resources together because we believe it's the right thing to do," Caffery adds.
Liu explains that in Australia, not just Canberra, it's very hard to find a position in the arts sector which holds any significance or impact within the wider community.
"With this job I'm able to chase my own passions, both for Canberra and the arts, and also see them realise because we are able to network and create these awesome projects and see them grow and grow," he says.
"It's just exciting to be at the forefront of cultural development, particularly in a city that I love."
The organisation has linked up with Cultural Development Network, a Melbourne-based non-profit research organisation, to specifically think about what is the importance of cultural activity in cities across the country.
"We're engaging with them to start putting measurable outcomes on cultural practice that are not just financial," Caffery says.
"This a fundamental shift away from the reasons why you would traditionally put on activities in a city environment – it's about the creativity inspired in a community, bringing different cultural backgrounds together and bringing history and families together.
"We can create these really sublime moments for not just individuals, but also as a collection of people. Art can create all these connections between people, bring them together and give them memories and moments that they want to remember."
Caffery believes that Canberra's at a cultural turning point at the moment, and it has been for about five years now. The ACT government is working to change regulation to make it easier for venues to start, but the movement is relatively new so Canberra is yet to see the results.
"We are a very young city, but we are actually advancing faster than a lot of other cities. It's just a matter of growing out of our infancy and finding our own feet. It's really compelling when large organisations believe in that idea too and want to support and grow it, because that's when you get exponential growth in the cultural industries," he says.
"The question for everybody is when will Canberra get to a point where we're 'cool' or whatever word you want to use – that's what the chief minister's using at the moment – but at what point will we be interesting enough for creatives to want to move to here?
"If we had a more palpable, cultural scene in Canberra it would offshoot and rumble across the rest of the country and the world because all the cultural industries are connected in some way.
"What we want to do is start getting positive perspectives of the city on a national level so that people come here more and, of course, we want to make sure that they have a great experience in their time here as well.
"But I don't think Canberra will ever be there because a city that doesn't grow isn't a thriving community," Liu adds.
"I don't think that we'll ever be happy, or that any other city should be happy in one stagnant spot.
"I certainly think we are at some sort of cultural tipping point where we're slowly becoming this city that deserves our spot on the map, but I definitely don't think that we are anywhere close and we're going to be always striving for something more – and so we should.