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Once dilapidated, Hin Bus Depot Art Centre has undergone an astounding transformation. Welcome to one of Penang’s most vibrant community spaces.
It is a successful case of creative placemaking in Penang. Through multiple art initiatives, the previously derelict Hin Bus Depot was revitalised and transformed into a contemporary art centre. It was then further developed into a creative cluster through the addition of more artistic content and creative outlets.
It is now making its name as a vibrant place where creative talents and art and cultural stakeholders gather to build up capacity by offering diverse events and activities.
Tan Shih Thoe, one of the owners of Hin Bus Depot, leads the management team. “Our idea is to turn it into a community place. Whatever we add on, we try to make sure everything blends in well.”
Questions arise regarding the sustainability of a creative cluster. What follows the successful revitalisation of a place, and will it continue to be vibrant, to draw more visitors and encourage revisits? Will Hin Bus Depot be able to sustain itself and continue as an active art platform?
A very small team manages the Depot. The main source of income is rent. Other than that, the management collects commissions or fees from exhibitions and events held within the premises. “Our challenge is to curate this place properly – to bring in the right tenants, the right people, while at the same time maintaining the identity of the place,” says Tan. Hin Bus Depot is currently populated by tenants such as Brinklin Cafe Bar, Run Amok Gallery, Buu’s Kitchen, Shia’s Homemade Granola, Wholey Wonder (a vegan cafe), Good Friends Club (a cafe, bar and restaurant) and Chai Diam Ma (a cafe-cum-art space).
Other than the financial aspect, a creative cluster requires a distinct, strong identity – something the management is nurturing at the moment. “We have been known as a place for street art or murals, not so much as a fine art gallery,” Tan says. “We are at a crossroads to decide how to proceed: should we go further and deeper on the street art path, or should we move in the art gallery direction? This is something that we ourselves have to understand and decide.”
The lawn at the depot has become a space for Sunday gatherings and picnics.
Wanida Razali, manager of the art gallery, states that the challenge concerns two major factors: “The first is to keep the momentum of people coming in. You don’t expect the regulars to come forever; there are people who come once and might not come back. We always question this: is it because of our programmes, our facilities, our customer service? The second is to get people to come in and spend money at our outlets.”
Bricklin Cafe Bar was the first outlet in Hin Bus Depot. According to cafe manager Rizal Shamsuddin, business is growing. “Previously, when it was just us, things were really slow. When the second outlet (the restaurant) opened, more people started to come in. The following six months were chaos – full house both here and at the restaurant. That was in November 2015. Now, the pop-up market on Sundays is another great idea; it is a supportive element for the cafe and the restaurant.”
The previously dilapidated shed is now a stage for performances, workshops and events. Every Sunday, it serves as a market place for pop-up stalls selling various creative paraphernalia.
Camaraderie is high among folks at the Depot. “We call ourselves Hin’s family,” Rizal says. “We do not see ourselves as competitors. Instead, we see how we can work together to make this place better. Hin Bus Depot’s reputation is already there, but we need more vibes, international events.”
Moving from its previous location on Lorong Hutton, Run Amok Gallery joined Hin’s family in February last year. At the Depot, Hoo Fan Chon, part of a collective that runs Run Amok Gallery, sees more foot traffic. However, they face challenges in attracting a larger audience from local art colleges and institutions. “Programming is key,” Hoo says. “Hin needs to have a clear artistic direction. It needs to find a good balance between sustaining the running cost by accepting commercial events and at the same time produce exciting art and cultural programmes that are relevant to younger audiences.”
Apart from the tenants, stall operators at the Sunday pop-up market also add a splash of colour and creativity to the premises. It provides a space for creative talents to gain exposure and market their products. Rudy, a stall operator, says, “In terms of commercial sustainability, Hin has lots of potential within itself. There are the tenants and the regular events. Things like that bring in income. In terms of creative sustainability, I think they are doing what they can and it makes sense. With art, it has to be very organic. You can’t push for it – it comes naturally. I think what has been done here is good, partly because the right people are doing it. This place is a good hybrid of artistic expression and creativity. I think it will only get better.”
The key challenge in sustaining a creative cluster is to continue to have the right people gather at the right place, under the right management. This requires goal-setting, co-management and effective partnerships among all stakeholders. Identifying the core values of the cluster and continuously revisiting these values to stay tuned to the community’s needs might be the way forward for Hin Bus Depot Art Centre.
Nicole Chang is a PhD candidate at the Department of Development Planning and Management, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.