Aviva Studios is the biggest cultural investment this country has made in decades. But so far, its aims appear vague
I recall working at a community event in Ardwick during the 2015 MIF and talking with an American guy whose wife was going to see the Richter/Part concert & exhibition. As we watched local kids having a joyful kickabout with a sports coach provided by the event, we both commented on MIF's seeming lack of connection to these kids and their lives. Unfortunately, this still seems to be the case. Where is the evidence that the festival has really, really asked local residents what they want to see as part of the festival? Another depressing aspect was the regularity of the same people popping up (step forward Damon Albarn, Maxine Peake etc). With a whole globe of culture to choose from you'd have assumed each festival would be entirely new. Speaking of 'new', for a festival that was supposedly all about commissioning new work, we've also had artists seemingly touring their latest albums ie Kanye West/Graduation and Bjork/Vulnicura. I've been a 'culture vulture' all my life, ever since my mum took me to the Royal Exchange aged six, but, sadly, MIF just leaves me completely cold. I really wish that wasn't the case.
A brief aside re the comment about MIF. I am probably one of the middle class white people who might be interested and both years I've tried to attend I've found the online programme hard to negotiate and the booking pages clunky so I've had to call the box office to be able to get tockets.
The headline shows sell out immediately and I'm always too late and other events can be very disappointing. I've managed to get tickets for one or two things this year just so I can take a visitor from the US, there being no traditional theatre scene left in the city, but honestly I suspect that cutting edge may mean the kind of thing I was doing as a student of performing arts three decades ago. Embarrassing. Nevertheless I may try the new arts centre and hope to be excited...
Really nicely done piece, and a great prompt for a (mostly) thoughtful and (mostly) respectful comments discussion. I'm indebted to the members pointing to the Fringe; I've been an immigrant to Manchester from down South for more than two decades, I thought I voraciously consumed and enthusiastically supported arts orgs all over the city, and I had (embarrassingly) never heard of the Fringe. Putting my education on that right, right now.
The only time I attended an event at MIF was when I was participating in it. It was in 2019. New music to commemorate 100th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre was commissioned -and the community choir of which I was a member was invited to sing part of it along with the Halle Choir, Halle Youth Choir and BBC Singers and BBC Orchestra. It was a fantastic experience, although the music was difficult to learn as it was very avant-garde. To be honest, I don't think I would have thought of attending it had there not been that opportunity to contribute. I never could resist a challenge.
Maybe MIF needs to offer more events of a similar type to encourage participation from those who don't consider themselves to be cultural types and from those who live on the margins of society. MIF has much to learn from the Halle Society archives department which has been running some well-attended community groups drawn from all age groups and all sections of society.
Lots to unpick here, from McGrath skirting the edges of real meaning in his answers, to pints for £4 (we went to Festival Square to see ACR on Friday - pints at the beer vending machines were £5.90, those at the bar inside were £6.50) and whether MIF is able to engage beyond its immediate captive audience.
You might spend millions on a building but if even the people who think of themselves as your audience can't be bothered navigating your programme and booking system, all you've got is a white elephant. I could rattle on about the eroding effect of years of struggling with online booking and opaque publicity on whether I can be bothered to engage with MIF but I'll restrain myself! McGrath's pondering of the frustration around people not engaging caught my attention.
I'd like to see MIF do more co-production with communities - that might help make a deeper connection with people who live on their doorstep in places that don't receive the same levels of arts funding. It's what their youth programme should be ideal for.
I find McGrath saying "we're all doing what we do because we feel it's joyous" very inward looking. Those barriers to people not engaging with the content probably stem from the team not doing what they do because their audience (actual and potential) feels it's joyous, or because they can't explain to their audience why it's joyous. I worked for a museum director once whose first question when presented with a pitch for exhibition or event content was "Why should I care?" It's a fair question.
I got a better sense of 'Economics the Blockbuster' from Sophie's experience of it, and her asking why she should care, than from any of the official blurb - it sounds like Kate Raworth's book made art and now I might visit. Raworth's book Doughnut Economics is worth a read, by the way, even if you don't think you're interested in economics - it relates theory to how we live and explains why governments get it wrong in really clear terms. If you have 15 minutes-worth of interest available, her 2018 TED talk is a good overview https://www.ted.com/talks/kate_raworth_a_healthy_economy_should_be_designed_to_thrive_not_grow
I think MIF accepted George Osborne’s shilling (not even half enough, as it turned out) at the expense of its own identity.
Punchdrunk in a soon-to-be-demolished office block, Kraftwerk in the Velodrome, Massive Attack in Mayfield Depot. You didn’t have to like all the shows (I didn’t) to get the Festival drift. So what does a perambulatory show runner want with a permanent space (& the associated heating bills, come to that)?
No matter how “flexible” Aviva Studios is, I can’t help feeling the whole shebang is surplus to requirements.
Watching Complicité’s production of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead some weeks back, I was reminded what a brilliant stage & theatre space the Lowry is. Its co-production record is second to none (War Horse, Taste of Honey, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). There are literally dozens of Venus & performance spaces in our region with capacity, expertise & needs. I worry MIF can survive the need for programme and revenues that Aviva Studios lands upon it. I hope I’m wrong.
I'd like to see the return of comedy to MIF, as a sort of affordable (for the artists) pre Fringe Fringe.
I’ve always found MIF an interesting proposition, I’ve spent countless hours over each festival thoroughly enjoying Festival Square and it’s range of free music/performances/DJs... it creates a real heart in the city for a few weeks and a festival atmosphere. But having seen quite a lot of work over the years at the festival I can barely count on one hand the number of shows I feel have truly resonated with me - and I’m the arty glasses wearing type with a penchant for the avant garde.
I think when people like myself struggle to fully understand what a show actually is from it’s description in the programme or on the website it doesn’t instil a huge amount of confidence about the accessibility of the work shown at the festival or in the future at The Factory.
I’m currently reserving judgment on the building itself until I’ve seen the multiplicity of uses it claims to have, but I was astonished by the scale of the warehouse space for the Kusama exhibition. Manchester and indeed the country need more spaces like that to hold art works of such a scale that are not just the turbine hall at Tate Modern. I felt the exhibition itself was somewhat one-dimensional and didn’t invoke much in the way of a response in me. Though I did enjoy lying on a cloud for around 20 minutes.
However KAGAMI is one of the most beautiful experiences I think I have ever had, incredibly moving and poignant. The ability to be as close to Sakamoto as you like, to wander around him in the space was a technological marvel and the kind of work MIF should excel at. There were moments that truly took my breath away and brought me to tears.
Also fully recommend Tino Seghal at the National Football Museum, if you have a good hour or so to kill and feel like some calming and meditative performance art you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.
Thanks for this piece. I am glad that it took a more positive slant towards the end. I love MIF and can’t wait to see the ‘You, Me and the Balloons’ at Factory International / Aviva Studios. I get that people want diverse audiences, but I think that there is a balance. I feel that Manchester Art Gallery has gone too far away from focusing on great art in their efforts to find the right balance. I’ve just come back from Vienna, which is stuffed full of world class art galleries, museums and classical music venues. If we want to be a world class city then we should get on with building world class venues. After all ‘the hacienda must be built.’
I love theatre and art but every year the MIF programme leaves me cold. It's always frustrated me that the Greater Manchester Fringe doesn't seem to benefit from MIF or have joined up advertising or anything like that. It has a much more accessible (and cheap) programme, but almost nobody seems to know about it.
Put the two together and you'd have a really good arts festival in this city.
I am baffled. As a mature resident of Manchester who enjoys the arts this venture doesn’t seem to have anything too say to me. I don’t understand the finance of it all but I do know English National Opera is on its knees, the BBC orchestras face the looming shadow of cut backs and the BBC Singers only just reprieved. These have given pleasure over decades. MIF seems to consist of people who talk with enthusiasm and vigour - but just to themselves?
Not for me.
An interesting piece - it didn't sit comfortably with me, mainly as it struck a bit of a raw nerve. I've always really enjoyed the festival and have been a massive advocate for it. I've seen some amazing world-class pieces over the years as well as discovered some amazing local grassroots talent on Festival Square, but I agree, I'm a little baffled (and underwhelmed) by the festival this year. I feel like I've been waiting for months for something more, especially given the exorbitant investment in the physical space, but it's not come. Like others, I'm really looking forward to seeing Yayoi, but feel that it's gained a disproportionately high amount of coverage and it feels as if Manchester is pinning all its hopes and dreams to this one exhibition! Perhaps my views will change when I get to Festival Square but I don't feel compelled to get down there tbh.
Good article and heartening to see you ended being hopeful about the venue. MIF has always put on shows that you would ‘struggle to think of anybody that would enjoy them’ but have managed to balance them alongside things you could take anybody to with no previous experience of the arts and they would love.
Given the article is titled ‘what is the venue actually for?’ There’s nothing in here about Factory Academy or the GM cultural skills consortium set up 2018, which has offered thousands of people free training and aims to develop future creative professionals. That was a big part of why the building was conceived, why it exists and what it’s trying to do. Worth revisiting…
I think MIF have done plenty to get their name and the broad sweep of work out there over the years. If people aren't looking at the adverts on billboards and streetlights, if they're not aware of Albert Square turning into a three ring circus for a month every other year, if they're not engaging with the city's cultural programming more broadly, I don't know that you can force them to. Personally, the opportunity to see highlights like the Massive Attack/Adam Curtis concert/film, or Tree of Codes, or Tao of Glass - or high-status failures like Baryshnikov lying on the floor screaming his way through The Old Woman or Into the Woods with Charlotte Rampling apparently never having read the script - is something that wasn't otherwise available.
Fwiw I think this sort of prestigious swinging for the fences is what the venue is 'for' - tricky stuff at scale, with cheap tickets. I don't think it's more deserving of funding than Oldham Coliseum, but I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. I'm definitely more excited for the programming at Factory/whatever name we all settle on than I have been for much of the Legz Akimbo dross Home have put on over the last few years
200 million pounds would have funded regional theate in Manchester (including saving the Oldham Coliseum) and community arts projects for decades. Suggest stopping passers-by in New Moston, Wythenshawe, and Clayton and askling them if they are going.
I hope the large and highly paid team quickly get to work in shaping an exciting offer going forward. I found the MIF programme limited and dull - also no dance as far as I could see!