Since the late ’70s, Manchester, in the north of England, has been a focal point for British pop culture. The city is still mostly known by the rest of the world for the bands it helped produce: Joy Division, New Order, the Stone Roses, Oasis and the Smiths all have ties to the city.
Now a new multipurpose arts venue aims to cement Manchester as a destination for the fine arts, too. It marks how the city’s cultural scene has transformed in recent decades, from a site for D.I.Y art-making to a desirable home for large-scale investment and corporate sponsorship.
Aviva Studios, named for the insurance company that provided some of the funding, opens in Manchester’s city center at the end of the month. It is a huge, highly configurable space that includes a nearly 70-foot-high, 5,000-capacity warehouse venue and a 1,500-seat auditorium. It will also provide a permanent home to the multidisciplinary Manchester International Festival.
The venue was initially named Factory International, after the local club night that became Joy Division and New Order’s record label, but a name change accompanied the announcement of Aviva’s sponsorship deal on Tuesday.
The expensive new institution, largely funded with public money, now faces the problem of connecting to a city with an increasingly complicated identity.
After years of postindustrial decline, Manchester has recently had a development and property boom, with its city-center population ballooning, and Microsoft and Amazon opening large offices in the area. But that prosperity hasn’t always been shared by the rest of the city, and in the Greater Manchester region, more than a quarter of children were living in poverty in 2021, according to government data. The city is also more racially diverse than much of the rest of Britain.
“Manchester is, in a sense, a complicated public for elite arts to connect to, with very different populations,” said Joshi Herrmann, founder of The Mill, a local newsletter. “Trying to find stuff that reaches across those different divides is really, really difficult.”
Herrmann pointed to recent projects that have tried: The Guardian’s “Cotton Capital” project, which analyzed Manchester’s role in the slave trade; Manchester Museum’s curatorial shift to embrace the city’s South Asian population; and a spate of recent books that complicate dominant narratives around Oasis, Factory Records and the heady days of the Haçienda nightclub.
Aviva Studios “is a space for making and exploring the possibilities of new large-scale work,” said John McGrath, the site’s chief executive and artistic director. The space opens on June 30 with “You, Me and the Balloons,” a site-specific installation by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and this summer it will host some of the festival’s performances, including those by the psychedelic jazz band The Comet is Coming and the cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond.
The first in-house production — the “Matrix”-inspired dance show “Free Your Mind,” directed by Danny Boyle — will be the centerpiece of a nine-day “welcome party” for Aviva Studios in October.
Since before plans for the new venue were announced, the Manchester International Festival has been grappling with how to balance attracting artists from around the world with speaking to and representing local residents. Founded in 2007, the festival was at first very focused on mounting large-scale productions and “bringing extraordinary work from around the world” to Manchester, said McGrath, who is also the festival’s artistic director. In its early days, “there was a sense that the festival wasn’t necessarily connecting in a deep way with the city,” he added.
The biennial festival is still seen by many of Manchester’s residents as “a niche cultural product,” said Andy Spinoza, the author of the book “Manchester Unspun.” He said many of its productions were devised outside of the city and were later exported to other international arts festivals. Though the Aviva deal “enables the doors to open and the overrun of costs to be settled,” he said, the corporate sponsorship feels “a long way” from club nights at the Factory.
One clear benefit to the city is the jobs Aviva Studios is expected to create. Bev Craig, the leader of Manchester’s City Council, said the venue would add 1,500 direct and indirect jobs in the next decade, alongside the new Factory Academy, which trains local people for technical jobs within the creative industries. McGrath estimated the venue would generate 1.1 billion pounds, or $1.4 billion, for the local economy over the next decade.
The venue is the largest investment in a single arts project by the British government since Tate Modern opened in 2000. Its cost has increased significantly, from £78 million when it was announced in 2014, to more than £210 million in the most recent City Council budget.
Manchester’s local government provided around half of that total, with the venue also receiving £106 million from the national government (via the Treasury and Arts Council England) plus £9 million a year toward running costs. The multiyear Aviva deal added another £35 million, The Guardian reported, which, City Council documents from October show, will go in part toward repaying council borrowing.
Aviva Studios opens as public funding for the arts in Britain is increasingly being redistributed, from London to the rest of the country, and from larger institutions to smaller ones. In November, Arts Council England announced that organizations like the English National Opera and the Barbican Center were losing their government subsidies. This was part of the British government’s commitment, announced in February last year, to increasing cultural investment and grass-roots access to the arts outside of London.
While the Manchester venue represents a significant investment in the arts outside of London, it is still an example of funding being channeled into a large, centralized institution.
In some ways, Aviva Studios completes the Manchester festival’s transition from what Spinoza describes as a “guerrilla arts movement using found spaces around the city” to the “big institutional edifice of today,” as both arts funding and Manchester’s identity become more complex and fragmented.
Along with excitement, the venue’s opening has also been met with skepticism from some locals who, Herrmann said, believe the money should have been split across numerous cultural projects in the area. Local reactions to Aviva’s sponsorship have also been “definitely negative,” he added, even though pragmatic attitudes to private investment have been “a big part of Manchester’s story” since the 1980s.
Ahead of the opening next week, the success of Aviva Studios is still up in the air, Spinoza said. If it can indeed provide transformative cultural experiences, he said, “people might start to believe it might be worth it.”