City's new cultural arts venue opens with plenty of aplomb from Factory International

Aviva Studios, the long-awaited and hyped cultural arts venue officially opened this week to much fanfare from all involved. 

Press gathered with head honchos of Factory International in the main atrium, now called The Social, to welcome the opening of what artistic director John McGrath called 'an inspirational building'.  

Ahead of a performance of Free Your Mind, the dramatic, dance-led interpretation of The Matrix directed by Danny Boyle, there was a tour and much talk of what can be expected from Factory International's new home.

When you create something special, people respond

McGrath kicked off proceedings with a testament to the collective efforts made in order to get the venue built, mentioning that many artists are now eager to put their stamp on the multi-faceted space.

"It has been an extraordinary journey to get to this point," he said. "Many, many people have been part of that journey, working with great commitment, fortitude, and an ongoing sense of hope to imagine and build the space that we see around us today.

"The vision of this building is to create one vast, extraordinary space that can be used in many, many different ways by different artists and creatives. I've had the joy in recent weeks and months of welcoming some of the world's most famous and respected artists to this space, and the question they've all had for me is, 'When can I do something here?' It's the easiest job I've had to sell this space to artists and to plan with them their vision in these beautiful spaces."

2023 10 18 Aviva Opens Presser 2
John McGrath opens proceedings Image: Confidentials

Then up stepped Lucy Frazer MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, with the unenviable task of convincing a room containing more than a few berets the Conservatives are just as excited as they are about a new arts venue.

"Aviva Studios is already special and is a testament to a brilliant partnership all pulling in the same direction," she said. "The end result is a venue that is going to be part of our cultural landscape for years to come in a city that is steeped in culture."

She then pulled out the standard cliches.

"From Lowry to Oasis and Stone Roses, Manchester has always punched above its weight culturally, and Aviva Studios is going to help us extend this reputation for cultural excellence long into the future. A venue that will give every young aspiring musician, artist or designer a venue they can dream of one day showcasting [sic] their talents. It will add to the unique identity of a city Orwell once described as 'the belly and guts of the nation' and is going to help grow Greater Manchester's vibrant local economy."

(By the way George Orwell never said that at all. Read the last paragraphs here.)

2023 10 18 Aviva Opens Aviva Sign
The Aviva sign Image: Confidentials

Bev Craig, Leader of Manchester City Council, alluded to the long and winding gestation of the project and the future promise it holds for a city that spent decades of the last century in the economic doldrums.

"I think when we open this building today, collectively I think we have both joy and indeed just a sigh of relief to reach this point," she said. "This is so important for a city like Manchester, it means so much to us and is why we fought so hard to see this come to fruition.

"We're a city that like many across the world in the 60s, 70s and 80s struggled with post-industrial decline. A city that struggled with a wild global reputation but with no idea of its direction. Over the last 20 years what we've seen in the city has been a phenomenal resurgence."

2023 10 18 Aviva Opens Riverside
The view from the upstairs bar Image: Confidentials

Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England, spoke about how "arts organisations that flourish have ambition", evoking the ghost of the land that the building now sits on, Granada Studios. 

"When Sidney Bernstein created the television company Granada and created these studios here on this site," he explained, "he had the ambition, as he put it, 'to establish a creative industry that was not part of the metropolitan atmosphere of the capital city, but had its own distinct identity', and that's a root that this building already has in this community."

2023 10 18 Aviva Opens Exterior
Aviva Studios Image: Confidentials

Finally the team behind Free Your Mind - choreographer Kenrick 'H20' Sandy, composer Michael 'Mikey J' Asante, set designer Es Devlin and director Danny Boyle - best exemplified both the eagerness of artists to use the space, and the possibilities of the space itself. 

Boyle spoke of using The Matrix to fulfil his brief to "somehow give the keys of the building to the people of Manchester, like there's no locks on the doors", Asante spoke of the original films prescience given contemporary fears about AI's ambiguous potential. Sandy spoke of "bringing servitude to the space" and Devlin of how "it's been a privilege to inaugurate and consecrate this new space of ritual in the city".

And with that, the tour began.

2023 10 18 Aviva Opens Matrix Chairs
Part of the Free Your Mind set design Image: Confidentials
2023 10 18 Aviva Opens Matrix Spoons
Part of the Free Your Mind set design Image: Confidentials

While much of the main interior of the building bears a resemblance to its earlier iteration for this year's Manchester International Festival, there's no doubt that while in July you could almost smell the final licks of paint drying, this building now feels ready to show its strengths. 

Both the main bar space The Social and the upstairs bar have been designed by Factory and Hacienda stalwart Ben Kelly, bringing a satisfying throughline to a project that was sometimes in a slightly wobbly dance with its influences. The view out onto the River Irwell from the upstairs bar creates an impressive new vista to accompany a pre or post show tipple. Or even just a tipple. I'd go there for a drink even without a ticket for something. 

The Hall, where I had seen AFRODEUTSCHE perform with the Manchester Camerata and Robert Ames, was shown in its full grandeur, tastefully traditional aspects paired with an extendable proscenium stage and removable stalls that will allow for all manner of performance.

2023 10 18 Aviva Opens The Hall
The Hall Image: Confidentials
2023 10 18 Aviva Opens The Hall 2
The Hall Image: Confidentials

Somewhat hogging the limelight, and with good reason, is The Warehouse, where Yayoi Kusama's psychedelic exhibition You, Me and the Balloons was previously installed and now hosts Free Your Mind

If you'd led me blindfolded into that room I would've never thought it was the same four walls. While before it had the endless, echoey sense of an aircraft hangar, now it was enclosed, intimate with a catwalk from some imagined future. What form the flexible space will next take will make for its own point of interest with each new addition to the programme. 

2023 10 18 Aviva Opens Warehouse Matrix
The Warehouse currently Image: Confidentials

Afterwards, stood outside the building, I asked a passing cyclist what he thought of it.

"It's an amazing structure," he said. "I've just been taking loads of pictures of the place because I've not been here for a while since it started getting developed. What a lovely place it's turned out to be.

"It fits in with the area, with the new buildings that are coming up around it, the bridge and all the rest of it; it fits in well. It's good to see more money coming into Manchester. I come here a couple of times a year and it's constantly growing out of the ground, so it's only a positive for Manchester. 

And the name?

"When I saw the word 'Aviva' I didn't think it had any connection with the insurance company itself, and I'm insured by them. I just thought it seems like a bit of a jazzy name."

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