‘Gallery stalkers’ target university art students at graduation exhibitions

The Hiroshima City University campus, where “gallery stalkers” were reported at graduation exhibitions, is on display Feb. 22, 2023. (Mainichi/Noburu Ujo)

TOKYO – At art universities and departments across Japan, fourth-year students organize exhibitions each spring for their graduation or program completion, giving visitors the chance to see the works up close at school or in museums. However, some see it as an opportunity to approach the students, follow the young artists or harass them with sexual remarks. The problem has become a problem, with the culprits known as “gallery stalkers.”

By mid-February, Hiroshima City University’s Faculty of Arts had more than 190 works on display in classrooms and art studios. The students attended the exhibits to view their works and talk to visitors. Unfortunately, many had scary encounters with gallery stalkers.

A college girl was told, “I’ve been watching you for four years, because you’re cute,” and received a gift from someone who lingered there for a long time. One person responded to a piece that resembled a naked woman: “Is this what you desire?” Someone else talked to a male student about the male reproductive organs. Another repeatedly tried to gift food and flowers to certain students. Someone even took shoes out of a bag and tried to put them on a male student, saying, “About three other students have already tried these on.”

Most of the nuisance behavior is committed by middle-aged men, but the gallery stalkers apparently include older women. One of them was spotted at the exhibitions about eight years ago. This year, that person entered the campus and spoke to one or more female students prior to the exhibition opening.

According to current students at the university, those targeted are usually female fine arts students wearing fancy outfits along with petite, mild-mannered men. They also pointed out that the incidents often take place in remote places, when the students are alone.

As the situation arises when the exhibits are held, students passed descriptions of the gallery stalkers and other information to each other. Many have raised their voices this time and repeatedly asked the staff to resolve the issue. One student said, “I brought it to the attention of the staff, but was told, ‘It’s because visitors are fans of your work,’ and, ‘Bear with it.'” The student added, “I feel scared and anxious as I realize there is no one to rely on.”

A graduate student at the university, 25-year-old Shiori Yamashita, also participated in an exhibition for her graduation. “Professors at the Faculty of Arts are mostly men. Men generally don’t experience much anxiety in their daily lives, and I wonder why they don’t understand when we turn to them for help.” She hopes that the university will increase the security of the exhibitions and that more female professors will have a say in the long term.

Sculptor and critic Nodoka Odawara tries to improve the situation of artists in terms of intimidation and working conditions. “Including myself, a lot of women artists seem to have experienced this. However, the gender balance of especially the teaching staff at fine arts colleges is not good, so it is difficult for the issue to get the necessary recognition,” she noted drawing from her own experience. “The perpetrators may think, ‘I support you,’ but they are suspicious people, so to speak. As is clear at Hiroshima City University, the students who are victimized are not limited by gender. University and gallery management should should draw up guidelines for dealing with nuisance, not ask students and artists to deal with it’, she emphasized.

A teaching staff member in charge of the graduation exhibition told the Mainichi Shimbun that they are doing the rounds not only to deal with suspicious people, but also to look out for problems with the displays and to solve other problems. “Students are also reminded in advance and we will work to maintain safety,” said the staffer. In addition, the university’s Office of Academic Affairs and Research Support said, “We have heard from students about the nuisance behavior and were at the stage of fully understanding the situation. We are eager to devise measures to address it.”

(Japanese original by Sakiko Takahashi, Cultural News Department)

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