Record audience numbers for this year's Manchester International Festival despite pandemic

Cephas Williams - Portrait of Black Britain

A report to the council's Executive reveals that this year's Manchester International Festival (MIF21) delivered record audience numbers, significant economic impact, and much-needed well-being benefits, despite the ongoing backdrop of a global pandemic.

As one of the first major cultural events post lockdown, MIF21 had a key part to play in helping kickstart Manchester's cultural recovery programme, and its dynamic programme of art, dance, theatre, and music events helped attract both local residents and people from further afield back into the city.

 Against the un-precedented backdrop of the pandemic the festival saw 68 events take place across 18 days, including 18 original commissions from leading international artists, and additional special events.

 A socially distanced festival due to COVID-19 meant there were a limited number of tickets available for MIF21 events compared to previous festivals. However, with the large number of free and online events programmed in this year it was possible to reach a record number of audiences locally, nationally, and internationally.

With the health and safety of audiences and participants at the forefront of planning, this year's festival programme also maximised the use of outside spaces.

There were 36 artworks and events in the public realm during the festival, which meant that audience reach was much larger than in previous years, and outdoor festival events were estimated to have been seen in person by 1,462,244 people.

At the same time, the festival also managed to reach audiences that were not able to travel to Manchester, through an expanded programme of online live and interactive content.  This included specially created films by artists, digital interpretations of exhibitions, broadcasts of music and theatre productions, and a video game.

A further 1.2 million people from 187 countries engaged with this expanded digital programme during the festival, putting total audience figures this year both in-person and online at well over two million (2,662, 244).

The festival also featured the first event at The Factory - the world-class new arts space to be operated by MIF - drawing 1000 people over a weekend and giving audiences a flavour of what to expect when it opens in 2023.

Support for local artists was a key priority identified for this year's festival, building on a range of support programmes developed for them during lockdown.  As the city and its cultural venues began to emerge from the lockdowns of the previous 18 months, the festival provided employment for hundreds of freelancers and artists.

MIF21 also had environmental sustainability at its heart with a headline ambition for the organisation to be on a committed path towards zero-carbon activity by 2025.  

Along with the Council, MIF invested in making grid-connected electricity available from the National Football Museum to Festival Square in Cathedral Gardens. The works are permanent, meaning that not only could the festival run stages and cabins from grid connected electricity – rather than diesel generators - but all events happening on Cathedral Gardens in future will have access to this power source.

For the first time, no additional skips were hired for waste management during the festival and the majority of project materials and items were reused either through community groups, donations, or reuse networks.

The amazing Big Ben Lying Down installed for the festival duration on Piccadilly Gardens saw plastic containing 30 per cent recycled content used for its book bags and structural wrap. The material - Sustane - is part of a closed loop of production, and materials were returned to the manufacturer to be recycled after use. 

Other environmental measures put in place this year included the continuing promotion of green travel measures, and ensuring that all cups, cutlery, and food serve-ware at Festival Square were compostable and sent to anaerobic digestion for processing - thus diverting them from landfill or incineration. 

Local residents were at the heart of many of this year’s Festival events and MIF21 played a significant role in bringing people together – enabling them to reconnect after a period of sustained separation. 

Nearly 6,000 people overall took part in MIF21 activity either as participants in Festival events or as one of the 440 Greater Manchester residents who volunteered to support the delivery of the Festival.

Headline results from this year's evaluation report include:

- A total of 68 events including 18 original commissions from leading international artists and additional special events took place across 18 days as the city reopened, attracting over 1,462,244 attendees

- An additional 1.2 million people experienced the Festival's wide-ranging online offer that included specially created films by artists, digital interpretations of exhibitions, broadcasts of music and theatre productions and a video game

- More than half (57%) of this year’s MIF programme was free, with a range of public artworks by internationally acclaimed artists at prominent locations and in neighbourhoods across Manchester 

- Over 100 Greater Manchester artists played across three stages on Festival Square, where thousands of people enjoyed the food, drink and free entertainment from noon till midnight.

- More than 1,000 people visited Arcadia, the first ever event at The Factory - the landmark new arts space currently under construction in the centre of Manchester

- 5,761 people were supported by the Creative Engagement team to get involved in the Festival in a variety of ways - from contributing their life stories to a book of love letters for Kemang Wa Lehulere’s I Love You Too, curating a talks and discussions series, having their portraits taken for Cephas Williams’ Portrait of Black Britain, and performing in Boris Charmatz’s Sea Change on the opening night of the Festival

- Every ward across Manchester had residents taking part in engagement activity with Hulme, Harpurhey, Ardwick, Moss Side and Rusholme all showing high levels of engagement.

- A team of 450 volunteers helped bring the Festival to life, supporting artists behind the scenes and welcoming audiences to Festival events.

- MIF’s widening participation programmes improved residents’ confidence, health, and wellbeing. Those who took part identified impacts such as building self-confidence, connecting with creative skills, helping to inform career decisions, and making new friendships.

- Despite COVID19 travel restrictions, MIF21 retained its international focus. Over 70 artists from over 20 different countries across six continents including France, Argentina, South Africa, Ghana, USA, Pakistan, Ireland and Japan starred in this year’s Manchester International Festival.

- MIF21 generated strong press coverage across print, online and broadcast media including news announcements, previews of MIF shows, and features, interviews and reviews.

- Retaining its strong national media profile, 118 journalists from 85 outlets attended MIF21 in person, despite travel restrictions to review individual shows or a cross section of the programme.

- 4 and 5 star reviews were secured for many shows including All of This Unreal Time, Poet Slash Artist, Arlo Parks, Damon Albarn, The Global Playground, and The Long Waited Weighted Gathering.

- Underlining the Festival’s contribution to the city’s creative scene, 91% of audiences either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement that the festival helps to make Manchester a world-class cultural city

Although the effects of COVID-19 necessarily meant that the economic impact of the 2021 Festival was lower than previous years, it's estimated nevertheless that this year's festival had an economic impact of £19.5 million - a far from insignificant amount after a year of repeated lockdowns and closed venues.

Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, said: "For Manchester International Festival to have not only put on a festival this year but to have grown its audience several times over from what it has been in the past is a testament to everyone involved and to the whole city for getting behind it.

"Our long-standing support for the arts, matched with a peerless cultural offer - thanks in no small part to the thousands of artists and creatives who have called Manchester their home over the years - is what helps shape and make Manchester a place people want to be.

"The Festival plays a pivotal part in this and MIF 21 did not disappoint, helping in this most exceptional of years to once again secure Manchester's position in the spotlight on the world's stage."

John McGrath, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of MIF said: “MIF21 was certainly one of the most challenging things we have ever taken on as an organisation - collaborating with artists all across the world, most of whom couldn’t travel, ensuring Covid safety for audiences and teams, and planning everything amidst a global emergency - but the results have made it all very worthwhile. 

"The enthusiasm and gratitude from audiences in Manchester, who told us how much they needed this moment of joy and coming together, the creativity of artists and production teams who worked so hard to make this ambitious programme happen, and the word of mouth internationally, have all demonstrated the importance of creativity to our city. We all needed our Festival more than ever, and I’m delighted that we succeeded.”


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