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Aviva Studios
Photograph: Pawel PaniczkoAviva Studios under construction

First look: Manchester’s blockbuster new £210 million arts venue

Factory International, AKA Aviva Studios, might not be complete just yet – but a sneak preview proves it’s ready to compete with any other arts space in the UK

Kyle MacNeill
Written by
Kyle MacNeill

The fact is, Manchester’s Factory International is not yet finished. Head down Water Street in Salford and you’ll get the idea: there’s hi-vis everywhere and construction is still going strong. Builders carrying smouldering soldering guns are busy slaloming through a maze of cranes, diggers and trucks, trying to finish in time for its opening this October. 

Thought to be the UK’s largest cultural project since the Tate Modern, the mega arts space got the go-ahead in 2017 and has cost a budget-blowing £210 million, made possible thanks to the government, Arts Council England and Manchester Council coughing up cash for its coffers. 

Aviva Studios
Photograph: Pawel Paniczko

Just last week, Factory signed a £35m sponsorship deal with insurance company Aviva, insuring against any funding issues and giving the building a new name: Aviva Studios. Unsurprisingly, the name change hasn’t been met with smiles all-round – but there seems to be a level of understanding considering the current creative climate.

The project itself, though, is set to pay off: up to 1500 new jobs will be created, it will bring an expected £1.1 billion into the city’s economy every single year and Factory Academy will support young creatives via free training programmes. And, since the space is the new home of eighteen-day arts biennial Manchester International Festival (MIF) – which kicked off just last week – the venue has been partially opened. Time Out was invited along for a sneak preview of the space.

1500 new jobs will be created from the project and a hefty £1.1 billion will flow into the city’s economy every single year

The building is deliciously spacious, capacious even; exposed brick is paired with totally exposed ceilings that reveal corrugated tubes, metallic pipework and electrical cables in all their industrial beauty. Envisioned by architect Ellen Van Loon as a kind of spaceship, it puts a futuristic spin on Manchester’s manufacturing past.

As ever, MIF 2023 promises an all-killer programme of new commissions, spanning all media and every corner of the city centre. The headline artist is Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and her new exhibition ‘You, Me and the Balloons’, produced especially for Factory International and set in the Warehouse area of Aviva Studios.

Her most comprehensive installation to date, it’s a psychedelic playground of inflatable sculptures spotted with her trademark polka dots, shaped into bowling pins, pumpkins and dolls. A properly tentacular spectacular.

And while it’s easy to see the work cynically as yet another immersive, Instagrammable exhibition – yes, there’s a mushroom room for mirror selfies and puffy cloud beds for TikTok moments – it’s impossible not to feel a sense of childlike wonder from it all, a reminder of the good type of inflation.

It’s impossible not to feel a sense of childlike wonder from it all, a reminder of the good type of inflation.

Elsewhere in the city, three weeks of genuinely unbounded art abounds. We’re taken to see ‘Economics the Blockbuster’ at The Whitworth museum around the corner, a new exhibition exploring areas of the economy beyond money; a properly leftfield piece of performance art from Juan Mata and Tino Sehgal at the National Football Museum; a pocketful of the 200,000 coins Ryan Gander hid across the city and Risham Syed’s ‘Each Tiny Drop’, a meditative experience in Mayfield Park looking at the power of water.

Back to Factory International – sure, the I’s and T’s might still need to be dotted and crossed and the new name might leave some MIF visitors miffed – but in terms of cultural impact to the city, the writing’s on the wall. Cementing Manchester’s cultural clout and creating a new space for young creatives, the venue feels industrial but not at all manufactured. It’s a genuinely adventurous venture – let’s maybe just forget it’s called Aviva Studios, yeah?

MIF runs from June 29–July 16 across Manchester, with all events either free or starting at £10. Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition ‘You, Me and The Balloons’ runs at Aviva Studios from June 30 – August 28. Tickets are available here.

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