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Backed by the family behind Fortune 500 company Midea, the new museum will be one of the largest in southern China.

Guangdong’s HEM Is the Art Museum That Home Appliances Built

A rendering of HE Art Museum. Courtesy HE Art Museum.

When it opens in March 2020, HE Art Museum (HEM) will not be hurting for space. Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, it will have over 8,000 square metres (over 86,000 square feet) of exhibition space—almost double what the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum can offer.

The 220 million yuan (US$31.5 million) museum is being established in Shunde, a district of Foshan, by He Jianfeng. He (pronounced 'her') is president of Midea Holding Co—the largest shareholder of household appliance manufacturer Midea Group—and the son of He Xiangjian, who amassed a US$25 billion fortune on the back of the company, which began as a bottle lid factory in Shunde in 1968. The family has committed to funding the museum's operations for its first ten years.

With both a building and a budget confirmed, one of HEM's main challenges will be cultivating an audience in Shunde, an industrial area better known for its furniture factories than its contemporary art scene.

According to the new museum's director, Shao Shu, Shunde's 2.5 million residents 'have been looking for experiences in arts and culture, but the current cultural offerings haven't met their satisfaction.'

Part of HEM's strategy to reach this local audience and differentiate itself from similar institutions in Shanghai and Beijing has been to brand itself as a regional museum. HEM plans to showcase Lingnan culture, a term that means 'South of the Ranges' and refers to three of China's southernmost coastal provinces: Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan.

The museum's current collection is much broader, however, and includes works by modern Chinese painters like Qi Baishi, contemporary Chinese artists such as Liu Ye and Ding Yi, and ubiquitous international artists such as Alexander Calder, Anish Kapoor, Yayoi Kusama, and Pablo Picasso.

Among the works in the museum's approximately 400-piece collection is Picasso's Homme et femme nus (1968), which the He family bought for US$15.6 million, bidding over the phone at a Christie's London auction in June.

Pablo Picasso, Homme et femme nus (1968). Oil and Ripolin on canvas. Courtesy HE Art Museum.

Pablo Picasso, Homme et femme nus (1968). Oil and Ripolin on canvas. Courtesy HE Art Museum.

China has been building new museums at a breakneck pace in recent years—opening 251 in 2017 alone—but there remains room for growth. It currently has over 5,100 museums, compared to over 30,000 in the United States. That's one museum for every 270,000 people in China compared to one for every 10,000 Americans.

According to Jeffrey Johnson, who founded the China Megacities Lab at Columbia University and now directs the School of Architecture at the University of Kentucky, private institutions play a critical role in China's 'museumification' of the country.

'Private museums remove the burden from the municipal government to develop, construct, and run the museum,' he said.

Among private Chinese museums, 'the Rockbund Art Museum, the Guangdong Times Museum, OCAT, and UCCA are good examples of quite mature museums which all grew up quite quickly and are managed in a professional manner, producing high-quality programming, research, catalogues, and so on,' said Rebecca Catching, a consultant who specialises in Chinese museums and contemporary art.

One risk for museums led by the owner of their collections is that there is 'too much of a top-down hierarchy,' she said. 'A museum is a meeting of many minds with many specialties.'

Shao Shu—who previously worked at the Long Museum, founded by mega-collectors Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian—believes there is opportunity for HEM to innovate.

'Art museums have always been a Western concept in China,' he said. 'I hope that through domestic private art museums and official art museums, we can work out a way that is suitable for China and we can cultivate our own model of museums in this country.' —[O]

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