Yayoi Kusama’s inflatable sculptures—a room of tentacles, a towering pumpkin, and gigantic objects, all covered in polka dots—have christened the new 150,000-square-foot Aviva Studios, a Manchester arts center that is U.K.’s biggest cultural investment in more than two decades.
Opening to the public today, the friendly, playful, and highly Instagrammable exhibition, titled “You, Me and the Balloons,” is billed as Kusama’s biggest inflatable sculpture exhibition. It also serves as a “preview” of the building that is now the permanent home of Factory International, which organizes the acclaimed biennial extravaganza Manchester International Festival. The Kusama opening coincides with the start of the 2023 edition of the festival, which runs across the city through July 16.
Aviva Studios was named after an insurance company that pumped in a £35 million ($45 million) cash sponsorship, one of the biggest deals of its kind in the U.K. It is also the country’s biggest national cultural investment since the opening of Tate Modern in 2000. It is spearheaded by Manchester City Council, with backing from the U.K. government and Arts Council England.
The £210 million ($267 million) venue has taken nearly 10 years to complete since it was first announced in 2014, a four-year delay from its original schedule, according to the BBC. (It is also £100 million over budget.) Work on the building, which was designed by Ellen van Loon of architects OMA, is still being done, and it is expected to be fully complete by October for its official opening.
The Kusama show, featuring a total of 11 works, includes fans favorites like a polka-dot pumpkin and tentacles, as well as a a version of the artist’s mirror rooms. While it is sure to draw crowds, critics attending Thursday’s media preview had divided opinions. Some questioned whether the spectacle of inflatable sculptures by a popular artist, many of which have already been widely seen around the world, including recently at Hong Kong’s M+, was the right artistic choice to open an ambitious new arts center.
“In order to initiate the new space, we thought it would be great to have an artist known to a wide range of people. And although she’s been seen across the world, she’s certainly not been seen on a scale in Manchester,” Factory International’s artistic director and chief executive John McGrath told Artnet News.
He also hopes that the elaborate inflatable sculpture exhibition showcases the scale and possibilities of this versatile space, with 70-foot tall ceilings that can be reconfigured according to artistic ventures. “We want the community to know about the building and the hands. Seeing how it can be used at scale will hopefully provoke other artists to use it in very different ways,” he said.
There’s also a lot of hope that the center will offer more than just art. With half of the capital costs of the building coming from the Manchester City Council, Aviva Studios is expected to bring 1,500 direct and indirect jobs, and £1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) economic value to the city’s economy, said council leader Bev Craig during Thursday’s media briefing.
Manchester has been seeing a cultural rejuvenation in recent months. In February the Manchester Museum reopened with a new South Asian gallery, while the rebranding of Esea Contemporary, the new name for the former Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, aims to focus on a wider region of East and Southeast Asia and their diaspora.
Darren Henley, chief executive of Arts Council England, said that the £106 million funding from the U.K. government and National Lottery Player’s money was “an investment well-made.” The council is also pumping nearly £30 million into Factory International over three years.
Along with the opening of the Kusama show, the space presented a star-studded line-up of new commissions for the Manchester International Festival. Community-engaged work by Ryan Gander asks people to question the concept of value by inviting audiences on a treasure hunt of collectable coins scattered across Manchester.
Tino Sehgal’s performance , a collaboration with former Manchester United football star Juan Mata, takes over the entrance hall of the National Football Museum and later the Whitworth. Featuring the performances by musicians, vocalists, footballers, and cyclists, the piece is the first of the project co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Mata.
Factory International, which is expected to operate on an annual budget of £30 million, financed by government funding, sponsorships, partnerships, and ticketing sales, has already planned some 20 major shows for its new permanent home over the next couple of years. The festival team is already making plans for their 2025 and 2027 editions