Manchester’s new arts venue highlights the city’s resurgence

Rising from the banks of the River Irwell in the former Victorian cotton capital of Manchester in north-west England is a striking diamond-shaped landmark that aims to become a symbol of the city’s 21st-century rejuvenation.

Factory International, the largest government investment in a British cultural project since London’s Tate Modern more than two decades ago, when it opens will be the world’s largest purpose-built arts venue of its kind, as well as a home for the Manchester International Arts Festival.

The massive venue, unveiled this week, is also the result of government attempts to boost the north’s post-industrial economy following the financial crash of 2008/09.

“To me it shows that investing outside of London in high-quality, well-thought-out proposals that benefit the economy is actually paying off for the country,” City Council leader Bev Craig said of the £100million invested in the project, both by central government and Art institutions in the last eight years.

Named after Factory Records, the acclaimed Manchester club and record label, the venue’s premise was first announced in 2014 when then-Chancellor George Osborne endorsed it as part of his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda to boost northern growth and the UK economy to bring back into balance.

Interior of the construction site. The venue was described as “empowering” and “wildly ambitious” © James Speakman/FT

The naming has been criticized by some as “art-washing,” but project backers believe it’s a fitting nod to the city’s musical legacy in the 1980s.

Rotterdam-based architect Ellen van Loon of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture then led the design of the art spaces, which were built on top of an existing industrial hall.

Architect Ellen Van Loon said her aim was to give a modern twist to Manchester’s preserved Victorian landscape, the legacy of its international status as the cotton capital © Murray Ballard/FT

Nearby director Danny Boyle, who was born nearby and officiated at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, will direct one of the venue’s first shows next summer, a dance-themed reimagining of the film The Matrix.

At the launch of the project, Boyle described its interior as “empowering” and “wildly ambitious” in scale, comparing it to the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern’s art installation space on the banks of the Thames.

Danny Boyle, second from left, at the launch of the project. He will be hosting one of the venue’s first shows next summer, a dance reimagining of the film The Matrix © James Speakman/PA

One of the first exhibitions will be that of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who will debut 30 years of sculpture at next summer’s Manchester International Festival in an installation entitled ‘You, Me and the Balloons’.

Lead architect van Loon wanted to bring a modern twist to Manchester’s Victorian landscape, a legacy of its international status as the cotton capital.

Her hometown of Rotterdam is also one of the “ships and boats and trains,” she said, explaining that she incorporated the warehouse’s brick arches — reinforced with new columns to hold the diamond-shaped roof — into the design of the space.

“It’s actually a reminder of the area’s industrial history,” she said, looking out over the River Irwell, once a premier trade route.

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama will be presenting her 30-year sculptures for the first time at next summer’s Manchester International Festival © Yayoi Kusama/Factory International

However, the development of the venue was not linear. The opening next summer will come four years late, while Covid-19, construction inflation, supply chain problems and an early design failure pushed the cost up from £110m to £186m.

Some of this was offset by additional funding from Arts Council in the wake of the pandemic, while Manchester Council took extra risk by borrowing to invest £19million more than originally intended and providing a temporary loan.

Factory International chief executive John McGrath said city officials took a long-term approach to the project’s benefits.

John McGrath, CEO of Factory International: “We now need a vision of Britain that says we make new things, export exceptional things, be a beacon for artists and have real talent” © James Speakman/FT

“It would be easy to panic – ‘Oh my God, you have Covid, you have inflation’; There are all these things that could go wrong. But they look like 20 or 30 years from now,” he said.

City leaders believe Factory International will add £1billion to the local economy, attract 850,000 visitors a year and create or support up to 1,500 new jobs.

After years of national debates, including within Government – first as part of the “northern powerhouse” and more recently the geographic realignment “leveling plan” – about how the UK economy can grow outside of London, the project is of national economic importance, it said McGrath.

“These are strange times and a lot of things are in flux,” he said of the UK’s current economic outlook in a week when the pound tumbled after Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s “mini” budget.

“But I think one story that all political beliefs agree on is that we need to rebalance the country.”

He added: “We now need a vision of Britain that says we make new things, export exceptional stuff, be a beacon for artists and have real talent – and we need that message more than ever.” Manchester’s new arts venue highlights the city’s resurgence

Adam Bradshaw

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