If art doesn't sell, how does an arts hub sustain itself?

If art doesn't sell, how does an arts hub sustain itself?

Hin Bus Depot is a creative hub for the masses. The team reveals their plans to keep the place thriving despite hesitant art consumers.

By Tho Mun Yi

Before owner Tan Shih Thoe took over the place, Hin Bus Depot’s surroundings were littered with mechanic workshops and its streets were dotted with beat-up cars. Even though he was attracted to the massive art deco architecture and the accessible location of the place, its condition was far from ideal. 

In 2014, an opportunity presented itself when Ernest Zacharevic, a young Lithuanian artist approached Tan looking for a venue for his first solo exhibition. Tan’s intention was to let Ernest exhibit for one month, then rent out the space to other tenants. There was no grand vision or plan.

Today, Hin Bus Depot is a vibrant creative hub housing over 20 residents and hosting a weekly pop-up market that supports small businesses in the community.

A platform powered by community

“New artists and non-mainstream artists do not have a place to express themselves. Hin Bus Depot aims to serve as an avenue for these artists and creatives,” says Tan. Highly accessible to the public, Hin Bus Depot positions itself as an art space for everyone, and not just the ‘elite’, with all the formality of a commercial gallery stripped away.

'Shou', choreographed by Jinn | Photo by Thum Chia Chieh, 2018

“Hin Bus Depot grew organically and filled up the gaps in the art scene that were previously not filled, very much like the water that seeps and fills in all the gaps in a cup of sand,” adds Tan.

Hin Bus Depot has always positioned itself as a community art space that supports and nurtures emerging artists by providing a channel for their creativity. Residents who occupy the space share a common interest and work together to encourage and help each other.

Originally from Klang, Nicholas Alphonso Pereira who is the founder and instructor of Woodsmen Makerspace was invited to run woodworking workshops in conjunction with George Town Festival 2018. The encouraging response influenced his decision to uproot and settle here. He now co-shares a space with fellow woodsman, Maker Mantra.

“The community support was what attracted me to set base here. I like that we are very close-knit, helping one another out, and are more than just fellow vendors sharing a space,” Nicholas says.

Jaffar Sadiq runs Wholey Wonder, a plant-based eatery and yoga studio at Hin Bus Depot since 2016. He too agrees with Nicholas’ sentiments that a help-one-another culture is inculcated amongst the residents here. “I try to be assistive to everyone here and helping one another is a reciprocated act”, says Jaffar.

A lean team in a very big space

With so many residents and a 60,000 square feet compound, including eight shophouses on Jalan Gurdwara and three others facing Jalan Kampung Jawa Lama, Hin Bus Depot is run by an extremely small team of two permanent staff supported by one or two part-timers or interns. 

The people behind Hin Bus Depot (from left): Tan Shih Thoe (founder), Khing Chuah (content curator), Isabel Thong (intern), Sereeta Sarah (intern) and Wanida Razali (gallery manager).

“The optimal headcount to run Hin Bus Depot is 6 fulltime staff,” says Wanida Razali, its gallery manager. She and her fellow colleagues take on many different roles from administration to marketing locally and internationally.

“Hin Bus Depot only exists if there are those who are willing to run the space. We have been very lucky for the past five years to find key people who are willing to sacrifice and grow with us,” adds Tan.

Hiring has been a challenge for Hin Bus Depot as it doesn’t generate enough income to employ extra hands. Its main stream of income is derived from rental collected through organizing events and from the residents that occupy the commercial space, not from the sale of artwork exhibited here.

“We cannot generate revenue from art exhibitions. Art does not sell as well in Penang, and at times these art exhibitions entail further funding from us,” says Tan.

Although Tan wants to have larger scale art programmes that will have a greater impact on the community, he concedes that funding from the state government is still essential.

Photo courtesy of Hin Bus Depot

Maintaining the sprawling compound is also a struggle. One of the team’s long-term goals is improving facilities in the open area to have more crowd control and make it more comfortable for visitors. “As what we have is an open space, we are very much affected by natural elements. Visitors also come in from many different entrances,” says Wanida. Upgrading the fans and providing more comfortable seats for visitors are some of the improvements Hin Bus Depot intends to address moving forward.

Staying focused on programmes

“From day one, the art gallery was an integral part of the community art space. Hin Bus Depot’s calendar for art exhibits is 90% filled for 2019. Nevertheless, we are not limiting ourselves to just art. We also want to support up and coming entrepreneurs and small businesses as well,” Wanida states.

Focus is paid on the quality of their programmes, one of which is the Hin Pop Up Market which helps the location in terms of foot traffic.

Photo courtesy of Hin Bus Depot

Held every Sunday, it is a platform for entrepreneurs, small business owners, craftsmen, artisans, performers, and makers of all kinds to showcase their products, crafts, and talents. The market attracts a wide range of visitors due to its varied content.

The second programme is the art residency programme for artists, art managers or administrators. “The intention of the art residency is for content building and networking,” says Wanida. Attention is given to both the producers and administrators of art to build up a healthy art ecosystem. A partnership with aCAT Penang – the state-initiated technology start-up and innovation hub – was also established to provide the artists with a space to work. Hin Bus Depot is still continually working on the funding and partnerships for their art residency programme.

The third programme in the pipeline is a library of art resources. Books or printed materials on arts, design, and culture will be made accessible to a defined community for reference. “We are still in the planning stage, but the team aims to keep archival and historical documentation of Hin Bus Depot as well as other creative spots like art galleries in Penang back in the 80s and 90s. Moving forward, Hin Bus Depot is looking towards collaborating with publishers to expand on this collection,” says Wanida.

From a gallery and event space, Hin Bus Depot has evolved into a community art hub involving many players in a short span of time. It will be interesting to see how much more the Hin Bus family can grow as it tries to fill the many gaps in the Penang art scene.

Tho Mun Yi is a computer graduate who used to work a technical writing job. Standing at the safety shores of her job, she looked out one day at the uncharted seas of creative writing and decided to sail on out.