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'Gallery stalkers' targeting university art students at graduation exhibits

The campus of Hiroshima City University, where "gallery stalkers" were reported at graduation exhibits, is seen on Feb. 22, 2023. (Mainichi/Noburu Ujo)

TOKYO -- At art universities and departments across Japan, fourth-year students host exhibitions for their graduation or program completion every spring, offering visitors a chance to see the works up close at school or museums. However, some take it as a chance to approach the students, follow the young artists around or target them with sexual remarks. The issue has become a problem, with the culprits known as "gallery stalkers."

    In mid-February at Hiroshima City University's Faculty of Arts, over 190 works were on display in classrooms and art studios. The students attended the exhibits to watch over their works and speak with visitors. Unfortunately, many had scary encounters with gallery stalkers.

    One female student was told, "I've had my eye on you (for four years), because you're cute," and was given a present by someone who lingered there for a long time. One person commented on a piece that resembled a nude female, "Is this what you desire?" Someone else spoke to a male student about the male reproductive organs. Another repeatedly tried to offer gifts of food and flowers to particular students. Someone even brought shoes out of a bag, trying to get a male student to put them on while saying, "About three other students have already tried these on."

    Most of the nuisance behavior is done by middle-aged men, but there are also apparently elderly women among the gallery stalkers. One of them has been spotted at the exhibitions from about eight years ago. This year, that person entered the campus and spoke with one or more female students prior to the exhibition's opening.

    According to current students at the university, those who are targeted tend to be female students in the fine arts who wear pretty outfits, along with short, mild-mannered males. They also pointed out the incidents tend to occur in spots that are secluded, when the students are alone.

    Because the situation arises whenever the exhibits are held, students have been passing descriptions of the gallery stalkers and other information between each other. Many have raised their voices this time around, repeatedly asking staff to deal with the issue. One student said, "I brought it to the staff's attention, but was told, 'It's because visitors are fans of your work,' and, 'Put up with it.'" The student added, "I feel afraid and anxious when I realize there's nobody to rely on."

    A graduate student at the university, 25-year-old Shiori Yamashita, also participated in an exhibit for her graduation. "Professors in the Faculty of Arts are mostly men. Men generally don't experience much fear in their daily lives, which I wonder is the reason they don't understand when we go to them for help." She hopes the university will step up security at the exhibitions, and in the long run, increase the number of female professors who have a say in the matter.

    Sculptor and critic Nodoka Odawara is trying to improve the situation faced by artists in terms of harassment and working conditions. "Myself included, very many female artists seem to have experienced this. However, the gender balance of teaching staff at fine arts universities in particular is off, so it's difficult for the issue to get due recognition," she pointed out, drawing on her own experience. "The perpetrators may think, 'I'm supporting you,' but they are, so to speak, suspicious people. As it is clear at Hiroshima City University, the students being victimized are not limited by gender. The management of universities and galleries should be setting guidelines to deal with nuisance behavior, not asking students and artists to deal with it," she emphasized.

    A teaching staffer in charge of the graduation exhibit told the Mainichi Shimbun that they are making the rounds, not only to deal with suspicious people, but to look out for problems with the displays and handle other issues. "Students are also being reminded in advance, and we will be working to maintain safety," the staffer said. Additionally, the university's office of academic affairs and research support said, "We have heard from students about the nuisance behavior, and were in the stage of trying to fully understand the situation. We'd like to think of measures to deal with it."

    (Japanese original by Sakiko Takahashi, Cultural News Department)

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