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The Melly Art Institute in Rotterdam has named itself after the popular 1990 billboard by Canadian artist Ken Lum.Ken Lum/Handout

A prominent European art gallery has dropped the name of a 17th-century Dutch colonialist so that it can honour an Ontario woman who sells high-end fridges and stoves in suburban Toronto.

Melly Shum is an unlikely civic hero in Rotterdam, where she is a symbol of worker dissatisfaction. Since 1990 a billboard featuring her face and the words “Melly Shum Hates Her Job” has graced a downtown gallery, spawning an urban cult of Melly, the queen of the dead-end gig.

Now her fame is rising to new heights as the public gallery drops the name of a colonial naval officer in her favour, reincarnating the Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art as the Melly Art Institute.

“It doesn’t affect me at all; that artwork has been there for years,” said Ms. Shum, who actually enjoys her sales job at an appliance store in Markham, Ont. But she added she approves of dropping the Witte de With name. “You can’t change history but you need to move forward.”

The unusual name change came about because of concern over honouring dubious colonial figures, and because of Rotterdam’s affection for a 30-year-old artwork created by the Canadian conceptual artist Ken Lum.

When the contemporary art centre launched in 1990, it simply took its name from the Rotterdam street (or straat) where it stood. Witte Corneliszoon de With was a 17th-century Dutch naval hero who defended the country’s colonial possessions against European rivals, helping to capture the Spanish treasure fleet in 1628 and hauling home South American silver worth millions of guilders.

He was recognized for his talents as a sailor who circumnavigated the globe, but he has become a controversial figure in recent years. He was a strict disciplinarian who abused his men and was engaged in several colonial misadventures, including an episode where he laid waste to Ternate, in Indonesia’s Maluku Islands, destroying all its clove trees so as to protect the prices of Dutch shipments.

In Rotterdam, where half the population is not of Dutch descent and many have Indonesian heritage, the centre on Witte de Withstraat became increasingly aware it wasn’t named for the right person.

Enter Melly. In 1990, Mr. Lum, a leading Vancouver artist at the time, had been invited to provide the centre’s inaugural show. His work included a photo-and-text series he had created with his students when he was teaching at the University of Ottawa the previous year.

One of them, Melly Shum Hates Her Job, showed Ms. Shum, a full-time student in those days, smiling as she sat in front of some outdated office equipment. The gallery asked if it could be used for a poster advertising the temporary exhibition on the outside of the building but Mr. Lum requested that neither his name nor the dates appear. So, the ad became a public art work, and when Mr. Lum’s exhibition came down, Rotterdam citizens complained: Where was Melly?

The art centre reinstalled the billboard, which has been a Rotterdam fixture ever since. People embraced what they interpreted as a critique of low-paid boring jobs while some commentators have interpreted Melly’s smile as strained and her eyes as tired.

“Public embrace of Melly Shum Hates Her Job means public ownership of the work,” Mr. Lum, who now lives in Philadelphia where he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of design, wrote in an e-mail. “I may have created the work but in important ways it is no longer mine.”

He added: “I’m honoured by the renaming. The renaming aligns with my (original) thinking for the work expressing real desires and tensions in the world, including those who have the power to speak and those who don’t.”

The name change took effect last Wednesday and also represents reimaging the gallery as a more diverse and democratic institution. The new Melly Art Institute is opening a free-admission section on the ground floor and producing a Melly TV series that includes an interview with Ms. Shum.

The real Ms. Shum is largely amused by the attention but points out it has little to do with her. Along with other students in her class, she posed in a university lab and the equipment beside her – it looks like an old adding machine – just happened to be there.

After art school, she quickly gave up trying to find a job in a gallery or museum and turned to retail sales, a professional tradition in her Chinese family that her generation had largely eschewed. She speaks English, Cantonese and Mandarin, and has thrived in the sector, moving from electronics to appliances.

She finds that helping clients and contractors pick the right fridges and stoves for high-end renovations draws on her training in the visual arts. The one time Mr. Lum’s billboard image was exhibited in Toronto, friends joked about it because they consider her a workaholic.

“My managers say I’d rather stay at work than at home,” she said.

Don’t tell Rotterdam, but Melly Shum loves her job.