I don’t know about you, but I always judge a venue by its toilets.

That isn’t meant to sound fickle. Loos in public places really matter and can make a huge difference to your experience of a space or event. Can you get to one easily? Are there enough of them? Will they be clean? Luckily for us all, the toilets at the newly named Aviva Studios, the home of Factory International and Manchester International Festival, are accessible, plentiful and spotless. Oh, and they look lovely too.

The press launch of this year’s MIF took place in the (almost) finished new building ahead of its official opening in October when Danny Boyle takes over the enormous space with Free Your Mind, based on The Matrix. But on this, the first day of MIF23, writers, journalists, artists, the great and the good and Alan Yentob are treated to a look inside and a taste of what the next three weeks has in store.Speeches start things off with Factory International’s CEO and artistic director John McGrath, Manchester City Council’s leader Bev Craig, and Darren Henly from the Arts Council telling the gathered about the vast ambition for this massive undertaking – the scale of the investment, the huge economic impact, the involvement of the community and, crucially, the art.This festival is as impressive a line-up as we have come to expect from MIF. From visual art to music, theatre to dance, artists like John Grant, Tina Sehgal and Alison Goldfrapp are descending on Manchester for the next three weeks in one of Europe’s best arts festivals. As you might expect, Maxine Peake is back, but footballer Juan Mata is in it too, showing that there’s always something truly unexpected within the programme.Speeches done, we’re treated to a walk through the venue’s cavernous warehouse. This flexible space will house performances and exhibitions of various sizes but, for now, it is overtaken entirely by You Me and the Balloons, the world’s largest-ever collection of inflatables by the artist Yayoi Kusama. And, in one fell swoop, there it is, the reason why everything said in those speeches was exactly right. Here is a beautifully presented exhibition by one of the world’s leading visual artists. It is fun, playful, and plants a beaming smile firmly across the face as soon as you enter. But more than that, it’s simply astonishing in its size, and you quickly realise that there’s nowhere, absolutely nowhere else in the city where such an exhibition could take place.We don’t get to go inside the theatre space today but, so far, the ambition is there for all to see.Later, a visit to Whitworth Art Gallery provides a preview of Economics the Blockbuster followed by a drop off at the National Football Museum where Tino Sehgal’s This entry forms the first commission as part of The Trequartista, a new two-year project exploring art and football by former Manchester United footballer Juan Mata and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Just outside, hidden within the nooks, crannies and leafy shrubs of Exchange Square, sunlight glints off discarded bottles, cans and other litter. But also there, hidden in plain sight, are coins courtesy of artist Ryan GanderThe Find invites you to flip a coin when life gives you a decision to make. It’s a simple but charming idea and you’ll can find coins across the city throughout the festival, but you’ll have to look…Later still it’s the world premiere of the stage version of the groundbreaking 1977 novel The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions at HOME, rounding off a day that suggests the next three weeks will be enormously enjoyable. But as Bev Craig said at the start of the day, this brand new, world-class space and its programme are about more than the jobs being created, the tourism it will bring in, and the financial investment that makes it happen. The work that Factory International creates over the coming decades will be about brilliant creativity, opening up imaginations, celebrating wonder, joy and breathtaking moments. And that’s what makes a city worth living in.

By Rob Martin

Top left image: Dots Obsession, 2013 – Installation view from Manchester International Festival 2023 exhibition, Yayoi Kusama, You, Me and the Balloons at Aviva Studios. Images © David Levene.

All other images by Rob Martin


For more information about MIF23, click here.